Wednesday 24 August 2016

Fifty Years of Belfast Life (1866-1916) part 10



For the time I am referring to the late 'sixties and early 'seventies, the division in the ranks of the Conservatives diverted attention from the divisions between Protestants and Catholics as a rule, though it cannot be said that the old party spirit had died out. Whatever may have been its condition before the 'sixties, it became very strong afterwards. The riots of 1865 raised it to fever heat, and it was not subdued for many years. And I cannot say that it is dead at the present day, though the differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants rest now largely on the new issues raised by Home Rule, which was not in the ascendant then. It was not till after the Disestablishment of the Church that Home Rule appeared on the horizon, a horizon that it darkened since, and continues to darken. It was the Irish Church and Irish land that formed the dividing line of parties in the 'sixties and early 'seventies. Repeal had died, killed in part by the Roman Catholics and the Young Irelanders, and Fenianism had taken its place. But Fenianism was a secret, and not an open, movement, and so far as it suggested, a serious danger had been nipped in the bud.

Home Rule, whatever we may say of its latest developments, was originated by Butt and other Protestants, chiefly professors connected with Trinity College, who started it, it was said, out of revenge on the Government for the passing of the Irish Church Act. I myself saw the original document, signed by fourteen or fifteen names, the majority of whom were Protestants. One, I remember, was Professor Haughton, and another Professor Galbraith, both of Trinity College; and the latter acted as secretary of what was called the Home Government Association. I knew him well, and met him often in the early 'seventies, and especially during the great election campaign of Mr. Parnell. I attended almost all the meetings in his favour, but I never once heard Mr. Parnell speak. The professor usually apologised for him by saying that he was addressing a meeting in another part of the county; but I do not think any other reporter heard him any more than myself.

I remember one meeting at the foot of the Wicklow Mountains at which Professor Galbraith made the usual announcement that Mr. Parnell was then addressing a meeting in a distant part of the county. On reaching the main road a lady and gentleman passed in a trap. I did not know either of the occupants, but I was told that they were Mr. and Miss Parnell. It was many years afterwards before I either saw or heard him. I could not say, therefore, how much he had changed in the meantime; but I can say he must have changed much in his readiness to be seen and heard in public, to judge from his subsequent history. Two reasons were given for this modesty in facing the electors. One was that he was not a good speaker or hesitated to face the public, and the other was that some of his

Two reasons were given for this modesty in facing the electors. One was that he was not a good speaker or hesitated to face the public, and the other was that some of his friends were afraid that he might use wild and whirling words, and do his candidature harm. I am inclined to think it was the former, for it is admitted that Mr. Parnell's first appearance in the House did not promise that the House had discovered an Irish orator. But he may have thought, as Mr. Disraeli said after his first speech, which was not much appreciated, that the time would come when they would hear him. At any rate, it did.

But here let me say that I do not believe for one moment that any, or at least many, of the men who founded the Home Government Association ever entertained the idea of Home Rule on the lines in which it developed. I question if they had more advanced ideas than what was expressed by the term local government or mild Devolution, and, if I remember aright, only few of those whose names were in the original list made themselves conspicuous in the movement after its later developments. We must also remember that Butt himself was cast aside and repudiated, as he did not seem to work for the advanced ideas of the movement as they developed under Mr. Parnell. I still think it was an unfortunate move on the part of the gentlemen, who originated the movement; but at the same time it is only fair to them to say that they were not of the new revolutionary and irreconcilable type of the later movement. But they had sown the seed, and the extremists reaped the harvest in one form and the Government in another.

But I am wandering from my muttons. At the time of which I am writing, and no less in the city of which I am "reminiscing," the members of the then Established Church were, in the main, Conservatives, while the Presbyterians were divided between the two parties, the majority of the ministers, as I previously said, having been Liberals, and the majority of the laity Conservatives. But a large number of the Presbyterian laity were Liberal, but there was more among the merchants and business men than among the working men, so many of whom were allied to the Orange Order. I may say, however, that during the great election I came in contact with several working men who were warm supporters of Mr. M'Clure, and they seemed to be a superior class of working men, too. The Roman Catholics, of course, supported the Liberals, as was natural, having regard to the questions that divided the two parties, and that the Disestablishment of the Church and the question of tenant-right were both questions in which they were specially interested. It was mainly to remove a grievance of which Roman Catholics complained that Mr. Gladstone took up the question of the Irish Church, though it must be admitted the Presbyterian Liberals were as eager and earnest on the subject as the Roman Catholics.

Indeed, it was this fact that led to the repeated taunts of the Conservatives that the Presbyterian Liberals were in alliance with the Roman Catholics. It was in connection with the taunt that the Rev. John Macnaughtan, one of the most eloquent and enthusiastic Liberals of the day — one so wedded to the voluntary principle that he never accepted the Regium Donum — made a memorable reply. After describing the common grievances of Presbyterians and Roman Catholics in relation to the Church, he said that if ever the time came when it would be a question of Romanism versus Protestantism in this country, his back would be found to the Cathedral wall. I can safely say, however, that many of those who were the staunchest supporters of Liberalism and strongest opponents of Establishment at that time became the staunchest Unionists of the Home Rule time, and were always in the van in defence of the Union and all that it represented. There is one thing further I may say in this connection, and that is that the majority of the Presbyterian Liberals at the time believed that with the removal of the Irish Church, which had been described as a badge of conquest, with substantial reform in land, we have ended the Irish trouble, and promoted union and prosperity and content. It is an unfortunate truth, however, that instead of providing that desirable result, these concessions only whetted the appetite for more, until the present hour, when it seems as if nothing would satisfy the Nationalists but the Parnellite s policy of breaking the last link between Ireland and the sister kingdom and eliminating everything that would represent England in government, policy, or faith. I think, however, it is due to the memory of the Liberals of those days to say that their hopes and aims were great, and that if their faith has not been justified by Nationalists' work since, they are not the only section of well-designing and well-intended people who have had their hopes blighted and their dreams of well-being and well-doing disappointed. I may say that there is no more in common, either in spirit or feeling, between the Liberals of the dawn of the last half century and those who are called Protestant Liberals in this day than there is between Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Ramsey MacDonald, who both call themselves Liberals, or between Mr. Joe Devlin and Mr. Tim Healy, who both call themselves Nationalists.

I have wandered far from what I wished to refer to when I sat down, to write. That was in relation to the party feeling of the time as represented by party expressions in the Police Court, which was a feature of the first and second decades of the last half century. The consignment of the Pope and King William to a fiery future in the 'sixties and 'seventies was very common. The expression of that feeling was frequently displayed in chalk in various parts of the city, and not a week passed, sometimes scarcely a day, without the police having some one up at the Court for this offence. "Party expressions" was not the language of the charge, but the use of language calculated to lead to a breach of the peace; but "Party Expressions" became the favourite phrase, and the usual headings in the newspapers. The magistrates at first inflicted small fines of ten or twenty shillings, but it seemed to have had no effect, and forty shillings was then standardised as the fine, and became well recognised, so that the friends of the prisoners usually went to Court armed with the fine and the usual costs.

No doubt it was generally when under the influence of drink that these offensive expressions were used. A story was current at the time that one prisoner who had been arrested for cursing the Pope, asked the policeman if the fine of forty shillings was the highest likely to be inflicted for the offence – that the number of curses would not add to the punishment — and so I presume he was satisfied with the answer, and thinking he would have value for his money, kept on repeating the curse all the way to the Police Office. For many years this class of offence was frequent. In the olden time few Police Court reports were complete without the headline, "Party Expressions." Nowadays, and for many years, past, it is very seldom one sees it or hears of it now. It is a welcome and satisfactory change whatever has brought it about. It probably arose from an improvement in education as well as in feeling, or from a lessening of drinking among the classes that might be expected to indulge in such expressions. I should hope that a better feeling had much to do with it, a lessening of individual antagonism arising out of religious differences. I honestly believe that spirit was growing, and would continue to grow, if politicians would keep in the background the questions that are calculated to promote and intensify these feelings. But the aggressive manner in which the Home Rule question, with religion at its root, has been forced on the attention of the people, is not calculated to soften asperities or soothe prejudices. The satisfactory thing, however, is that this question is now discussed on a larger plan and looked at from a broader point of view, in the mass rather than the individual. I am quite aware that the Nationalists, whose action has done the most to keep this feeling of hostility alive, claim that they are the people who want religious differences suppressed, and pre-eminently want the people to be all one. But the way in which they want them all to be one, the Protestants and Unionists to be one with them, is to be one not alongside the Nationalists, but under them. I give full credit to those Nationalists, not excluding Mr. Devlin, who were willing to consent to the six Ulster counties being excluded for at least a recognition of some rights for the Protestants of Belfast and Ulster; but it has been painfully brought home to us that that is not the intention of the majority, either of the Nationalist extremists or the hierarchy of Ireland, who have declared against it. At any rate, the change to which I have referred is a welcome and satisfactory one, so far at least as Belfast is concerned.

To be continued...

From The Witness, 25th August 1916.

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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