In my last article I hinted at the difficulty I felt in recalling memories of Belfast in the 'eighties. By that of course I meant memories relating purely to the city and apart from the outside questions that perturbed it. I violated my own rule not to look over files by looking over some files of “The Echo” for that period but I found few local topics specially worth remembering or recalling. What remains chiefly in my memory and what occupied my own chief attention during this period were the Irish outrages and disturbances, the wars in which the Government were engaged, the Irish Land Bill and its developments, the Franchise and Redistribution Bills, the visit of Sir Stafford Northcote and Lord Hartington, the opening of the Ulster Reform Club, and the evils of Home Rule that were casting their shadows during the first half decade of the ’eighties; the break up of the old local Liberal party, and the adhesion of the somewhat miserable minority to Home Rule, with the vast majority forming the Ulster Liberal Unionist Association; the introduction of the Home Rule Bill, and the riots that followed. In all these Belfast was deeply interested. Though Belfast, has been called the Northern Athens, I do not suggest that it was like the Athenians of Paul’s time, who were, always seeking after new things. For they were not. But new things, and in the main bad things, were forcing themselves on our people, and each demanded attention, perhaps not entirely to the exclusion of local topics, but to their subordination.
Take the present time as an illustration of what I mean. The first remark that one usually makes to another each morning — this was written last week — is as to the news from the war front. That is the first and pertinent question. There are others that may come in incidentally, such as the location of the proposed club for soldiers and sailors. We have had the members of the Rotary Club seizing the happy idea and forming a club for soldiers and sailors spending their intervals of leave in the midst, and selecting on the locus in quo the Ulster Hall, about the wildest thing that ever entered into the mind of a man to conceive. We have had a great deal of local controversy as to various or conflicting sites, and many laughable and some saddening incidents in connection with it. At the time of writing I cannot say whether we are to have a club or not, or where it shall be or how far it will be satisfactory and serviceable, if it should be. But I do hear a good deal of talk and gossip about it. But, then, who, after twenty or thirty years, perhaps after twenty or thirty days, will remember anything about it, and what will be the loss to the world or to history if it should be forgotten? I have no doubt there were many questions like that cropped up locally in the period under review; but I hope it will be no reflection on my memory or my interest in local affairs if I say I have forgotten about them, as I am sure the reader will forget all about this little club controversy before the ides of March.
But what remains in my mind in regard to the election was that it resulted in a great victory for Mr. Gladstone, who, having previously retired like Achilles to his tent as a dissatisfied man in dudgeon, came forth and led the old Liberal forces to victory. I remember walking down Donegall Street on the morning of the Belfast election, and remarking that no matter what would happen in Belfast the Liberals were winning all over the kingdom, and the party could get on without the assistance, as it had to do for several years. At that time Mr. Gladstone was the grand old man to me, as to all other Liberals. We had no more idea after the anti-Home Rule speech he had made some years ago that he would have descended into the Avernus of Home Rule than I would have imagined three years ago that Mr. Lloyd George would become the champion of Imperial interests and honour and of the patriotic spirit that he is to-day. Some men disappoint us by descending in the scale of true patriotism and others disappoint us by ascending to the greatest heights. Mr. Gladstone is my chief example of the first, and the present Prime Minister of the second.
There are two outcomes of this victory to which I will refer also by way of contrast. In England the Liberal triumph sent the English Liberals into such delight that they immediately set about the formation of a club to celebrate it. This was completed in due time and called the “Eighty Club.” At the time Home Rule was as remote from the minds of English as of Irish Liberals. Yet only three or four years ago we had about fifty members of that same club, all committed to the hilt to Home Rule, coming over to Ireland representing themselves in advance as English gentlemen setting out to make an independent inquiry into the subject at first hand; and yet, as an introduction to independent inquiry, they came to Dublin under the aegis of John Redmond and to Belfast under the aegis of “Joe” Devlin.
It was the same Liberal victory that impressed a fine English Liberal and local manufacturer, the late Mr. Samuel Johnston, with the idea of founding a Liberal club in Belfast; and the Ulster Reform Club was the result. The principles of Liberalism, including the unity of the kingdom, were the bases of the club; and these are its bases; strengthened and emphasised by later developments since, at the present time. In 1886 and afterwards the club became the centre of Liberal Unionism, and though some of the original members who had deserted that principle remained in it for years afterwards, the basis of the club was, and is, support of the Union. The English Eighty Club broke down in its Imperial Liberalism, but the Ulster Club remained true, and is true and staunch to this day.
One other fact connected with the club I may now mention, without violating historical accuracy or violating confidence. While the club was being erected and formed it was the idea and hope that Mr. Gladstone would come over to open it; and I believe in one of the early ’eighties he was asked, but could not avail himself of the offer. In course of time, however, Lord Hartington was asked to perform the ceremony, and though it was well established — for it was ’85 before it was formally opened – the ceremony was performed by the heir of the Cavendishes, on whose Unionism no shadow of suspicion had ever rested, or could rest. Many a time and often did I hear the old leaders and founders of the club thanking their stars that Mr. Gladstone had failed to materialise as sponser of the club. If the club had been opened under his auspices I am afraid it would have lost prestige, and I am quite sure its members would not have felt as happy and proud if his name, or his later shadow, had been over it, as it is now with no suggestion of either.
To be continued...
From The Witness, 2nd February 1917.
The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle, editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.