Wednesday 8 February 2017

Fifty Years of Belfast Life (1866-1916) part 32



Last week my space-controller — we are all, except Irish Nationalists, under control now — cut me off abruptly as I was contemplating the addition of some incidents or anecdotes in connection with the Ulster Reform Club. I am afraid some of these have now escaped my memory or got out of their setting, and I can only hope they will return to me when at a later date I intend to give an account of the opening of that fine institution by Lord Hartington, as he who died Duke of Devonshire then was. I am sorry to say that I cannot keep the threads of my story so well in hand as the parishioner of a ministerial friend who told me the story was able to do. My clerical friend was in the habit of visiting and discussing with this member of his flock, among others, the topics of the time that were mutually interesting. On one occasion, however, he was making a purely pastoral visit, but the good farmer, as usual, started out about crops and prices and other matters especially interesting to himself. At length the minister, recalling the special object of his visit, suggested that he should engage in prayer, which was done. Immediately they had risen from their knees the farmer addressed himself again to the minister, beginning, “As I was saying when you interrupted me;” and then resumes the conversation where he had left off.

Now, I have not my subject so well in hand as this good gentleman had, with the result that I am once more landed in a difficulty from which I hardly know how to extricate myself. But just as I am writing my eye falls on a cable which Lord Shaughnessy has sent to the various Lord Mayors who had entertained the Irish-Canadian soldiers, one of the chief of whom was his own very young and game son. In this cable he says — “If their visit makes for conciliation and harmony and the submergence of narrow sectarian and local prejudices, its importance cannot be overestimated.”

Now, I do not suggest that in this sentence Lord Shaughnessy meant a special reference to Protestants and Unionists, Home Ruler though he is; but I could not help noticing that it is in line with almost all the suggestions, or rather lectures, of Home Rulers, who profess to think that sectarian and local prejudices are a special Protestant monopoly, and that if Unionists would only abandon these and accept the Irish Roman Catholics and Nationalists as the angels of light and exemplars of toleration that they claim to be, we could all live happily ever afterwards under their gentle and tolerant rule. I cannot forget, however, that his lordship is, or was, a strong Home Ruler; that when he was sworn in as a peer of the realm his chief vouchers and associates were Mr. Redmond and the leader of the Irish Nationalist party. I cannot forget that he was heralded the other day from Canada, where he resides, via Chicago, as a possible Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, who had special qualities and special knowledge for settling the Irish question. And I cannot help feeling that somewhere in his mind, if not in this sentence, there is the suggestion that all would be well in this country if Ulster and Irish Unionists should forget the past and their principles in the desire to appease Irish Nationalists, and the Protestants of Ireland should cease to regard Roman Catholics as enemies of their interests and the interests of the United Kingdom. I have also before me as I write the result of the Roscommon election, in which Count Plunkett, who owes his title to the Pope and his election to his connection and that of his family with the Sinn Fein movement, has been returned to Parliament by a majority of nearly two to one over the official Redmondite candidate. It strikes me that Home Rulers should confine their monitions about union and harmony of the Nationalists, from whom both are more absent than from any other section in the country, and that before a Nationalist begins to lecture Unionists on the importance of harmony they should at least have some harmony in their own ranks. We are asked by these good friends to secure harmony by bowing the knee to Mr. Redmond and the party leaders, yet here is a great typical Nationalist constituency that not only refuses to bow the knee to Mr. Redmond, but incontinently and very emphatically kicks him. These incidents project my mind back to the Irish situation in the early ’eighties and to its connection with the present.

Now, it may be that I have prejudices in this or other matters, though I modestly think I am as free from that as any Irishman, if being an Ulsterman the Nationalists will permit me to regard myself as an Irishman at all. And it is to show my own spirit of liberty and freedom and the real interests of Ireland and that of those with whom I was associated in the ’eighties, I will recall some of the incidents of that time and the action of the Ulster Liberals in regard to them. In the ’eighties the Ulster Liberals supported Mr. Gladstone and his policy; they supported his Land Act; they supported his Land Commission — even though at its opening its chief official announced that “the Court of the Land League is now open;” they supported the sub-Commissions in their decisions reducing rent; they supported as long and as far us they could the policy of governing the country without what, in the language of the day, was called a Coercion Act; they advocated the abolition of the Grand Jury System and everything in the way of legislation, short of the integrity of the Empire, to conciliate Irish Nationalist opinion. It is true they did not support the Land League, they did not support the Home Rule either of Isaac Butt, or Shaw, or Parnell, and they protested with Mr. Gladstone, and as strongly as he, against the crime that dogged the footsteps of the Land League. But they and the land legislation and administration that they supported had leavened Ulster, and especially rural Ulster, with principles of rational reform and true national Liberalism, which, but for the Parnell invasion of the province, would have swept at least the Ulster counties. It was an open secret of the early ’eighties after the sub-Commissions had been at work reducing rents that, in many old Conservative districts where farmers dominated even the “News-Letter” was ceasing to be the god of their idolatry as it had been before, and many Orange lodges were weakening in numbers and influence. This was a time when I question if outside Belfast it would have been possible to hold a purely Conservative political meeting in any part of Ulster.

I remember during that time having had a conversation with Mr. Wm. O’Brien, who had not yet projected himself into politics; but was the brilliant writer upholding the cause of the farmers, as well as Home Rule, in the “Freeman’s Journal.” At that time Parnell was as much anathema to Ulster Liberals as he was to the Conservatives, and was regarded as a greater danger to our cause, the cause of liberty, Liberalism, and progress, than he was to the Conservatives. I said to O’Brien that if he could keep Parnell out of Ulster the cause of true Liberalism would triumph in that province; but if Parnell once entered its borders the cause would be lost, and the Orange farmers of Ulster would return to their old allegiance. At this time a contest was brewing in County Tyrone on account of Mr. Litton, who was one of its members, having been, or being expected to be, made a Judge of the Land Court.

Mr. Parnell, in the saturnine form of the Rev. Harold Rylett, Unitarian minister of Moneyroe, contested Tyrone, and was beaten hands down. But the mischief was done. Almost in a night; in the twinkling of an eye, the whole situation was changed. The farmers in large numbers returned to the Orange lodges, which once again resumed full sway, and the cherished hopes of Liberals of a happy and contented Ireland under the Union and loyal to Britain destroyed. Ulster farmers, however much their own interests had been benefited by the land legislation, were not prepared to submit to Parnellite dictation or evasion then any more than at the present.

While I am on this topic, I may refer to another conversation with Mr. O’Brien in regard to a crucial epoch in his own life, and, I will add, in the life of the country. I may have told it before, but I will mention it in this connection. One fine summer night Mr. O’Brien asked me what I would think of his going into politics. I said I should be sorry to hear it. I told him that I knew what his dreams and ideas were; that he had a free hand in the “Freeman” to give full effect to them; that I did not believe he was cut out for a political or public life, and that as sure as he went into politics he would be in Kilmainham in six months. I pointed out to him many of the difficulties, financial and commercial, that he knew nothing of that he would have to face. At the end of our conversation, which was at the small hours of the morning in Sackville Street, Mr. O’Brien said — “I wish I had met you last week. You have put views of this question before me that had never occurred to me. I am sorry, to say it is now too late. I have burned my boats. I signed my agreement last night.” He started “United Ireland” shortly afterwards. It is a matter of history and was a fulfilment of my prophesy that he was in Kilmainham inside six months. He was in Kilmainham and in other prisons afterwards. But that is another story.

It was about the same time that the manager of the “Freeman’s Journal” asked my opinion about the prospects of Mr. Gray’s taking over the “Morning News” of this city and running it as a Parnellite paper. With all the advantage of a special wire and the assistance of the “Freeman’s” London staff he, or at least his manager, seemed to think that the paper, under such circumstances, would succeed at a bound, I tried to disillusionise the not altogether canny Scot who represented him. I told him that if the Land League had given Mr. Gray twenty thousand pounds to throw away on propaganda work he might go on. But if Mr. Gray was putting his own money into the venture I begged him to urge him to desist. I had a great respect for Mr. Gray, and thought he would want all his money to rebuild the old offices in Princes Street rather than to waste in Ulster. I asked him if he imagined that if Mr. Henderson, of the “News-Letter,” started a paper in Cork and gave the value of the London “Times” for one penny that he would get either readers or advertisers to support him. The mere fact that it would be propaganda work he would be engaged in, I told him, would impel the people to oppose and resist his efforts. If Mr. Gray heard he did not heed. He took over the “Morning News” shortly before the Phoenix Park murders, and on the Monday after that terrible tragedy his Editor recalled the suggestive story of the old Roman ruler cutting off the head of the tallest poppy as a delicate suggestion of “removal” — a word that became historic in connection with the Dublin tragedy. Bad had begun, but this was the climax so far as local feeling, or, if Lord Shaughnessy will, prejudice, was concerned. Mr. Gray held on to the “Morning News” for some years. I met him one night after his connection with the unfortunate concern ceased. He then told me that he had just signed a cheque, making £17,500 as the amount of his loss up to that time, I do not think that £25,000 got him clear, and his widow has still to pay nearly £100 a year as the difference between the full rent for which he was responsible and the amount for which the premises are let. When I remember that in my time the “Freeman” was making £6,000 or £7,000 a year — at least so I was told and believe — and its history and losses since, I cannot help thinking Nationalist journalism in Dublin is no more brilliant than it proved in Belfast under his regime.

Now, in the early ’eighties Home Rule had not come to be regarded as a practical possibility, and in the opinion of the Liberals as well as the Conservatives what made it appear impossible was the action of the Nationalists themselves. They seemed then, to have as little of practical initiative and suggestion as they have to-day, as much division as they have to-day, as much hostility to British rule and authority as they have to-day; with this difference, that in the ’eighties it found expression in moonlighting, mutilation and murder, in boycotting and butchery, in threatenings and outrage, while to-day it has taken the form of open and undisguised rebellion, with death and havoc in its train, as many shootings in one week as in a decade in the former period. In the early ’eighties the Liberals had no idea that Mr. Gladstone would surrender to rapine and murder, as he did in the later. All we had at that time to guide us was a speech delivered by him in the ’seventies in Aberdeen, in which he said — “If doctrines of Home Rule were to be established in Ireland, they would be just as entitled to it in Scotland. . . . Can any sensible man, can any rational man suppose that at this time of day, in this condition of the world, we are going to disintegrate the great Capital institutions of this country for the purpose of making ourselves ridiculous in the sight of all mankind, and crippling any power we possess for bestowing benefits through legislation on the country to which we belong.” We had in 1881 his declaration that “with fatal and painful precision the steps of crime dogged the steps of the Land League.” We had his war with the League and Mr. Parnell up till the fateful hour. I have been looking over an index to a volume that gave a record of the principal events of the nation from 1880 to 1887. Under the head “Ireland” I find eighty or ninety references to Ireland, and more than half of them relate to murders and massacres, moonlighting and other shootings, boycottings and arrests, and trials in connection therewith. These are a few in the order in which they appear:— Assassination of Mr. Boyd; Murder of Lord Mountmorris; Boycotting at Lough Mask; Mulholland Shot; Parnell, Dillon, &c., Imprisoned; Outrages (three separate lists); Lough Mask Murders; Phoenix Park Murders; Outrage at Gort; Murder of Mr. Blake; Murder of Joyce Family; Attempt on Justice Lawson; Murder of Denis Field; Joyces’ Murderers Executed; Trial of Phoenix Park Murderers (more separate references); Attempted Murder of Bailiffs: The Queen Insulted — “at the inaugural banquet given by the Lord Mayor of Dublin (1885) the health of the Queen was received with mingled applause and hissing” — Return of Outrages; Outrages in Kerry; The Chapel Bell Signal — put into requisition at Carrickmore, near Dungannon, preventing the service of an ejectment, the crowd summoned attacking the police; Cartho Family Assaulted.

These are only some of the incidents of a little over half a decade, the majority taking place after Mr. Gladstone had introduced the Land Act, and while alternately fighting and funking, arresting and releasing leaders, repressing violence and surrendering to it. Belfast and Londonderry and Newry are the only Ulster places mentioned in the index in connection with riots. Belfast also appears under the heading of Loyalty in Belfast — referring to a meeting held in January, 1886, on the initiative of the Chamber of Commerce, protesting against the imperilling of the Imperial connection, and expressing loyalty to the Throne — a form of expression rare in other parts of Ireland at that time, and rare since. I admit, however, there were also records of eviction.

I intend to refer further to this time and this subject next week, and I introduce the incidents of the eighties as being part of those we are coolly asked to forget. We might be able to forget them if the Nationalists would give us the chance, but they are proving to us still that in irreconcilability, in hatred of England, in their disloyalty and ruthlessness as exemplified by the recent rebellion they are just the same Nationalists they were. In the eighties they were as ruthless under Mr. Gladstone’s Government as under that of Lord Salisbury, biting the hand that was feeding them with beneficent legislation. Mr. Gladstone did much for Ireland; Lord Salisbury did much also. Mr. Balfour did much in the way of practical development. Land Purchase has made Irish farmers the envy of the kingdom, and streams of money flowed into the country. And yet the spirit of Nationalism is as bad and as mad as ever; still ungrateful, still revengeful. What the Nationalists seem to do in the way of forgetting is to forget all the blessings and benefits British rule has given in the last three or four decades, and remember only what happened centuries ago, what they read in their school books and in their rebel literature about the wrongs of past centuries. Protestants can forget past wrongs in present rights and circumstances. The Presbyterians of Ulster suffered almost as much as Roman Catholics from disabilities and from the treatment of the Episcopal Church, but they have forgotten all that in the newer and better life of the present, and the memories of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and even the nineteenth century do not come between the great and united effort they have now to make for religion and life, for country and Empire. The Roman Catholics remember the wrongs centuries old, and forget the blessings and benefits of the present. Protestants and Unionists are willing to forget even the bad past of Nationalism if the Nationalists did not keep piling up deeds that keep them alive.

To be continued...

From The Witness, 9th February 1917.

The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle, editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.

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