With the reader’s permission, I will return to more directly local subjects, though I cannot promise that I will leave Home Rule out, though I should like much not only to leave it out, but to rule it out. But the period I have in my mind, and with which I was dealing when I went off on a tangent about Parnell and his crimes, was the period in which Home Rule began to appear on the horizon, which it has darkened ever since. So far as Belfast was concerned, it was only in 1885 that we began seriously to dread the appearance of the monster. Those of us that were Liberals held out to the last against the possibility of Mr. Gladstone surrendering to the Parnellite Delilah. But in 1885 rumours got abroad that Lord Carnarvon, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland — the Conservative Government was called into existence on the defeat of the Liberals in the summer of that year — and Lord Randolph Churchill were making advances to Mr. Parnell; and it has been established since, that Subterranean conversations and interviews had taken place. It was admitted that in the true conspirator form and spirit Lord Carnarvon met Mr. Parnell in an empty house in London, and it was an open secret, and it has long since ceased to be a secret of any kind, that Lord Randolph Churchill was having some secret meetings in Dublin during some visits to the late Lord Justice Fitzgibbon.
No doubt the Conservatives had been courting Mr. Parnell’s support, and no doubt they received it at the election that took place in 1886. The Conservatives, to a large extent, joined with the Parnellites in opposing the Crimes Act, and Mr. Winston Churchill records in his father’s life that Lord Randolph told Lord Justice Fitzgibbon in his own house, “I told Parnell when he was seated on that sofa (pointing to it) that if the Tories took office, and I was a member of the Government, I would not consent to renew the Crimes Act.” “In that case,” Parnell said, “you will have the Irish vote.” Though we did not know as much of those subterranean negotiations in Belfast as we know now, we knew enough to make us suspicious. And the situation in Belfast was this — the Conservatives were twitting the Liberals on Mr. Gladstone going to grant Home Rule, and the Liberals were retorting with these tales about Lord Carnarvon and Lord Randolph Churchill. Sir Stafford Northcote visited Belfast in 1883, and did not say much to illumine the darkness of the time, his one recorded statement of satisfaction after his visit being that he was thankful he had no theory to defend. In connection with this visit an amusing incident (though based on what might have been serious circumstances) occurred. Sir Stafford was coming to Belfast on Mr. W. H. Smith’s steam yacht Pandora; but a storm arose in the Channel, and the poor Pandora, after being beaten about, had to put in at Kingstown, and Sir Stafford did not arrive in Belfast till considerably after the time appointed. I admit that we Liberals made much capital out of the mysterious non-appearance of the hero of the hour; and a humorous wag that we had at that time on “The Echo” made very merry over it.
But he did arrive the next day, and a demonstration and a banquet took place in honour of his visit. I have no recollection of anything he said. But I remember one incident in connection with the banquet. I happened to drop into an establishment, where afternoon “tea” was being dispensed, and found half-a-dozen gentlemen present, including three members of the Banquet Committee. “Here is a man who will settle this question for us.” said one. “What is the vexed question?” I asked. “Well,” said my friend, “I hear it said that the champagne at the banquet the other night was not good. Now, you were there. What is your opinion?” “Well, in the first place,” said I, “I was a guest; and even if I disapproved of the wine, it would not be polite to say so; and, in the second place, I would not know good champagne from bad, and, therefore, am unable to express any opinion.” “Well,” said my friend again, “I do not know how it could be bad, for ‘Billy’ and. ‘Charley’ and myself sampled two dozen and a half bottles before we gave the order.” I said if that was the case I should not be surprised if it had been bad, as at that stage of sampling I did not think they would be good judges.
But bad having begun with Sir Stafford, the weather, and the Pandora, worse remains behind. The Pandora came round to Belfast to take the hero of the hour away; and it had not got far on its journey till storms again arose, and the Pandora had to put back for safety to Donaghadee, with its Jonah on board. I do not remember whether the Pandora ventured again afloat with him or not; but I know as a historic fact that he got back to England some time or other.
But the whirligig of time brings its revenges. In the summer of 1885 the Marquis of Hartington was announced to come to Bedfast to open the Ulster Reform Club, and a great banquet was arranged in his honour in the Ulster Hall. All went merry as a marriage bell till the morning of the banquet, and the Liberals were all cock-a-whoop, as they had arranged a fine banquet and a fine gathering and a great display. About ten or eleven o’clock, however, a telegram reached Sir Ed. Cowan, who was to be his lordship’s host, announcing that the Marquis had taken suddenly ill in Dublin, and would be unable to fulfil his engagement. Hurried meetings were held, and the wires set in motion to see if some other Minister could take his place; but none was available; and as the Tories of the time said, a performance of “Hamlet” went on with the Royal Dane’s part left out. And no doubt their Press and the party made merry over the incident, and poked fun at the Liberals, as they had done in the case of Sir Stafford Northcote. It was a jolly banquet, however, and while the guests may have missed a very solid oration, they missed nothing else, either solid or liquid.
At the same time, the party had to endure a disappointment, as well as much chaff. Though it was officially stated that the Marquess had been really ill, that he had met with a slight accident a day or two before, and that his medical men would not allow him to make the journey, there were not a few Liberals who felt with all the Conservatives, that diplomacy rather than the doctor had made the stay imperative. I have never been able to satisfy myself on that point, for matters in Ireland at the time were in a critical state; and I was one of those who believed, or, perhaps, I should say, feared, that information that he had not wot of communicated to him in Dublin had made it difficult for him to make an important pronouncement at the time.
At any rate he did come in the following November, and in the midst of a General Election, for in the meantime Lord Salisbury, who had taken up the reins of office on Mr. Gladstone’s defeat over a very miserable matter connected with the Budget, but could not command a satisfactory majority, appealed to the country, and a General Election was rushed through in a couple of weeks. The club was opened in due form. It was a rather Irish opening, inasmuch as the club had been going on in full working order for nearly a couple of years. The club, according to one of its original rules, was formed for “bona-fide Liberals in politics and loyal to the principles of Constitutional government land to the maintenance of the Union with Great Britain.” The assemblage in the club on the occasion was brilliant, and Lord Hartington and the other guests of honour on the occasion were as enthusiastic and delighted over the magnificence of the building and the adornment of the local habitation and name the Liberal party had secured in the capital of Ulster. Lord Hartington made an interesting speech on occasion, which was largely one of congratulation and appreciation of the work done and suggested in Ulster. Before I refer further to Lord Hartington’s visit, I should like to mention one or two private incidents of the time that it can ao no harm to mention now. The late Mr. John Shaw Brown, in addition to having been one of the originators and one of the largest subscribers to the funds for starting the building, supplied free, and of the finest description, all the napery required for the club. I think I am right in saying that the late Mr. Samuel Johnston, of Highfield, Belfast, was the gentleman who first conceived the idea of the club. Some time after the club was formed — I cannot recollect whether it was after or before it was formally opened — Mr. Brown was entertained to dinner by the members. Laudations were poured upon Mr. Brown’s head during Hie evening for the part he had taken in the formation of the Club. All who knew Mr. Brown will remember his happy, handsome, and smiling face beaming good humour, good nature, and geniality all round, and will also remember that he was the most natural and unaffected of men.
When it came to his time to acknowledge these compliments and laudations, he said, inter alia, “You have been all giving me credit for starting this club. I did not start the club. There’s the fellow (pointing to Mr. Johnston, who, with his characteristic modesty, was sitting at a private table) that started the club. He called at my office one day after the General Election, and said, ‘Don’t you think it would be a good thing to start a Liberal Club in Belfast;’ and I said, ‘It would be a very good thing; but how will we do it?’ He said, ‘I’ll subscribe a thousand pounds.’ That was a staggerer; but I said I would not let any Englishman come over here and outdo a Belfast man, and I said, ‘I’ll give a thousand pounds too.’ That’s all I did. Sam Johnston is the man who deserves all the credit.” I may say, however, that all the subscriptions given were put into shares in the Building Fund, which continues to give a return to the original holders — the club pays a rent to the Building Committee that represents the original contributors. There is one other incident in connection with the early days of the club. The late Sir John Preston was being shown over it; and after he had gone over the various rooms and was looking round the fine billiard room, with its splendid light and outlook, he said, “This is a very fine club; it will do very well for us after a while.” The late Mr. Robert MacGeagh, who was in the group, and he was never behind with a retort, at once said, “Oh, yes, your party is very fond of second-hand goods” — a reference to the old Musical Hall, which had been converted into a Conservative club, which was a palpable hit. But then Mr. MacGeagh never failed in that respect. I remember on one occasion when a certain gentleman, who at the time deserted the early principles of the club, almost trampled on him in passing along one of the rooms of the club. Mr. MacGeagh’s sight was not of the best, and he had not recognised his old friend. “You don’t seem to recognise your old friends,” said the gentleman. Turning quickly towards him, and shading his eyes with his hand, as was his wont in certain lights, Mr. MacGeagh shook his friend’s hand warmly, and smilingly said, “Oh, you know, when a man changes his coat it is sometimes difficult to recognise him.”
To be continued...
From The Witness, 23rd February 1917.
The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle, editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.