Thursday, 27 October 2016

Fifty Years of Belfast Life (1866-1916) part 17



I will now pass for a time from the realm of journalism to the realm of justice, so far as a police court represents it – and heaven forbid that I should cast either reproach or suspicion upon its manner of representing it. My change from the “News-letter” to the police court was recorded in the character of a lapse, if not a collapse. It came about in this way. The control of the telegraphs passed to the Government in 1870, when greater and cheaper facilities were offered to newspapers than before. I cannot remember whether the newspaper had any advantage over the general public previously. By one swoop the Government gave them the benefit of sending one hundred words for a shilling, provided the matter was for newspaper publication. This led to the formation of news, agencies and other means of obtaining extensive supplies for the newspapers, with the result that the quantity of news to telegraph exceeded the supply of trained clerks to do the work. One consequence of this was that the “copy” was not always good, full points or periods were almost disregarded, and if a sub-editor got a faint flimsy it was a strain on the eyes to read it, and a strain on the brain to make it intelligible. I assisted the sub-editor at the time o' nights, and the strain after some months was too great for my eyes. I imagined, however, that, the painful effects I discovered were the result of weakness of the eyes rather than mere strain, and I concluded with regret that I would have to abandon newspaper and night work.

It was while I was in this state of mind I discovered that an extra Police Court clerk would be wanting at the new Police Courts that were just opening at the time. I secured the appointment, much, to the disgust of newspaper friends, who regarded it as a great lapse from the glorious independence of newspaper life to the drudgery — and dirt — of the Police Court. Well, I did not find it exactly drudgery, but my then chief, Mr. George Kennedy, made it rather humiliating. His chief end and aim seemed to be to show as much servility to the magistrates as possible, and because nearly all the magistrates had known me beforehand, and talked to me on friendly and familiar terms, he took every opportunity to make me feel that I was not of the same clay as them, and that instead of talking up to them as a free youth, I should have crawled before them as a slave? On my first day in the courts I was sent out for some blotting-paper for the magistrates — the last three words were always appended and emphasised with the suggestion that I should first salute and then fly. I did not salute, and did not even run; I walked out and I walked back at a much more rapid rate than I walk now, but yet not with the feeling or the fear that a magisterial mastiff was at my heels.

This was on the first day the court opened, and it was crowded. My chief no sooner saw me than he rushed — almost flew — at me, seized the sheet of blotting-paper, rushed back and obsequiously spread it before the magistrates as I returned to my humble seat as an humbled individual. This and other incidents of the kind were not calculated to reconcile me, even to the possession of a Government office and salary, with a right to a pension — though when I think or read of pensions to which had I remained and lived I would now have been entitled, my teeth water. My other superiors were Mr. Robert M'Master and Mr. Robert M'Henry, like Mr. Kennedy all gone, and they did so much by kindness, sympathy, and consideration to make amends for the roughness and rudeness of my superior that I was quite reconciled. I do not say I made a good Petty Sessions Clerk, I am afraid I made a very bad one, and I do not think there is anyone now alive to contradict me. I could at any rate take “informations” — my reporting experience stood me there, though my unlawyerlike handwriting was often a worry to my chief and to Crown Solicitors.

But, truth to tell, I did not take kindly to the work, which, though not heavy, was monotonous and mechanical, which I hated; to the atmosphere, which on a crowded day was not the purest; or to many of the dishevelled and troublesome clients of not the most cleanly habits or tastes, with whom I was thrown in contact. No one could judge from the courts of the present what they were in those days, or the magistrates or practitioners as they were in those days. I seldom hear of a field day in the court now, or hours of wrangling now. But in those days there was hardly a week or month without one. Everyone that had a grievance seemed somehow or other to get it ventilated in the Police Court — and at times that was the only kind of ventilation in the court — and the solicitors were all armed cap-a-pie, mind and tongue for the work. So far as I have been able to observe from my visits to the Police Courts in recent times, which are almost angelic in their rarity, the solicitors talk to the magistrates and do not orate to the gallery as many of them did in my day. Then scarcely a week or even a day passed in which rival ladies, often with dishevelled head-dresses, would not appear against each other for assault. First one party would get a summons, and then the other would get a cross-summons. Then each would employ a lawyer, and the principal satisfaction each got for her fee was to hear how the one solicitor would emphasise in classic language the abuse that she had heaped in street language. There were giants in the profession in those days for that sort of thing, and the three who remain in my memory as outclassing all others were Mr. Wm. Harper, Mr. Patrick Sheals, and Mr. Andrew M'Erlean. Mind you, they were all good advocates in serious cases or in any cases, but for professional purposes they reached their greatest heights, and I will add their greatest gains, in cultivating and developing the classic side of Billingsgate to meet the tastes of their clients. I hope to say more of the professional side and the magisterial side later on, but I mention these features of the court in my time because they left an indelible mark on my memory. And there was another indelible mark left, and that was the mark of respect which I and all who knew them entertained for them all the days of their lives.

It was not these men or the magistrates of the time that wearied me of Police Court life. It was the monotony and routine, the formality and, if I may say so, regularity of the work — for the great part of the work had to he done before the court opened in preparing for the magistrates, and, after it was open in preparing the documents for ensuring the prisoners' safe conduct in Black Maria to the jail, and providing them with passes for their careful looking after while there. I had each morning to write up in fearsome numbers and with varying monotony the book which informs the magistrates of the names and charges for the day; how that Constable Crooks or Sub-Constable Snooks charged Patrick This and Mary That with one or other of the many offences known to Police Court law — as far as I can remember the 13 and 14 Vic., Cap. 92, seemed to be the line out of which most of them came — such as drunk, drunk and disorderly, drunk and disorderly and assaulting the police — sometimes each of these would be separate charges, and often all three would be one — with not giving up possession of a house, with neglecting this duty or that, with selling drink without a licence, with keeping public-houses open during prohibited hours, and so on. Then we had to make out order and committals, order or committals, and collect the fines and costs — my chief, however, was a perfect master in that part of the business, and did not require any assistance. He did look after the sixpences with a vengeance — I am sure there were no bad debts in sixpences in his day. Many a time and oft have I heard him, with one eye on a witness and another on a woman with a shawl over her head, going over the formula all in one tone of voice and with the same solemnity or the want of it — “The - evidence - you - shall - give - to - the - court - shall - be - the truth - the - whole - truth - and - nothing - but - the - truth - so help - you  - God. — Six — pence — here,” and the woman and the sixpence would be seized before the witness had sealed her oath. It was weariness of all this routine which was to me uninteresting and unattractive, that led to my recovery from my lapse, my return to tea “News-Letter” and the journalistic fold, in which I have remained a simple — very simple — sheep to this day.

Despite the deprivation of a pension I must say I do not regret having returned to my first love. Better half a year of Europe than a cycle of Cathay. Better a life in the world in change and variety, in movement and action, than a life in a dull court, with sombre and often sordid surroundings and associations; better the life on the streets than a life in a court; better a life among politicians and magistrates out of law courts rather than in it, among Corporators and Water Commissioners and Harbour Commissioners, and even the Poor-law Guardians, than among the denizens of the dock and the police cells; among the crimeless rather than the criminal; even among the people who ought to be in the dock rather than the people who are. In these courts there is so much seen and heard of squalor and misery, of drink and debauchery, of total indifference to meum and tuum, so much to inspire pity as weH as disgust, sorrow rather than joy, that I can well understand the feelings of many of those who have to live their lives in them, and realise that they well merit any salaries or pensions they receive. While there is much that would arouse sympathy and stir a heart of flint, there is much that would be calculated to turn the softest hearted into flint. And certainly there is much to move the moralist and the reformer. In these courts at first hand one can realise the terrible effects of over-drinking, which, horrible as it is in man, is more horrible in women; and from my recollection of those months in these courts women were the greatest sinners. I have seen women and men hurry up almost with, clock-like regularity. “Anything known of this prisoner?” the magistrate would ask the head-constable in charge, and then, that officer would read out the record. I could not say in all cases, or even of the majority, that the convictions were many, but in many cases five, ten, twenty, and thirty records would be turned up, and I think in my time there was one unfortunate woman who had approached, if not topped, a century of convictions.

I often wondered how so many of these wretches got the money to enable them to get drink so deeply and so frequently, but it often seemed as if the less clothing the people were able to wear the more drink they were able to consume. No doubt the lack of sufficient food made their overcoming by drink more easy, and the pawnbroker and the spirit grocer, to say nothing of the publican, had their share of the work and responsibility. I had a theory on this subject that I remember ventilating at the time among some temperance reformers. That was that if they would secure from the Legislature that no alcohol should be sold unless it had reached maturity — those were the days of only the pot-still — these people would not be able to buy as much whisky as would make them drunk — and I must say of much of the whisky sold at the time very little whisky was sufficient to make a muckle of trouble for the police. I smelt some of it at the time, and the smell was enough for me. But my friends would not hear of any move in that direction. They seemed to think that the cure would be worse than the disease, and tempt many to drink on the strength of its quality. At any rate one would not need to be more than a casual visitor to the Police Court, to say nothing of being in its very heart for days and months and years, without understanding from personal observation the truth of the temperance and moral reformer theory that drink is at the root of the great part of the crime. This may be a truism based on published facts and theories. But at an early age the truth was impressed on me by my Police Court experiences.

To be continued...

From The Witness, 27th October 1916.

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

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Fifty Years of Belfast Life (1866-1916) part 16



Before I pass from Belfast journalism or reveal too many secrets of the prison house, I should like to refer to the attempt to start a rival paper to the “News-Letter,” which, in the early ’seventies, had, to some extent, lost touch with the Johnstonite party, or a section of it. At any rate, what was called the Protestant Working Men’s Association of the time — it was chiefly members of that association, who received and utilised the money Mr. M'Clure subscribed to assist Mr. Johnston’s expenses fund — did not look kindly upon it. The strongest financial force of that party, strong both in finance and feeling, was the late Mr. John Clarke, then of the firm of Messrs. Clarke & M'Mullan, and who after his separation from the late Mr. Thos, M'Mullan founded the firm of John Clarke & Co., Corporation Street. Mr. Clarke was a man of strong individuality and determination, and of an enterprising nature. It was mainly through him, but with the assistance of others, that the “Belfast Times” was founded and published by the late Mr. David Allen in Arthur Square. At that time in nothing but the ability of its head did the Arthur Square establishment afford a foretaste of the subsequent extensions to Corporation Street, to Harrow, and to London, and I may say over the world.

Mr. Allen, as it was understood, was a shareholder and also the printer, and in due course the paper appeared. It did not live many months; but it was said at the time that this was not so much the fault of the “Times” as the circumstances. The paper, however, made one memorable “hit,” which gave it a fillip. The late Judge Keogh, himself a Roman Catholic, in the course of a trial, made a most virulent and vehement attack on a priest, which created a tremendous sensation. By one of those happy accidents — and I do not think it was more – the “Belfast Times” on that morning gave a report nearly a column long, which, as telegraphing went in those days, was a matter of enterprise, while the other papers had only a brief and general account. The importance of the speech was not so much in a summary as in an exact reproduction of the language, which was tremendous in its vituperative forcefulness. It formed the subject of attention in Parliament and the country for many days. The report was a journalistic hit, but it failed to secure the permanency of the paper. And the special publication did not make a hit. Mr. Clarke was unfortunate in his editor in a sense. Nicholas Flood Davin was a brilliant writer, no doubt; but he was erratic in his manner and his method, his comings and his goings. Some of his articles were brilliant, and some of them supremely silly; and it was stated that on one occasion, to make amends for his own neglect, he boldly cut an article out of an English provincial paper and gave it all the glory of leaded type and all the appearance of originality.

But if Mr. Clarke was unfortunate in his editor, he was no less so in his staff, some of whom, though clever, were often querulous or unavailable, “tempery” as well as temporary. I remember that on one occasion — it was during a debate on the instrumental music question in the General Assembly — there was a feud among the staff, and I was asked to go over for a few nights to assist in quelling the trouble and getting through the work, which I did. I saw that confusion was confounded indeed; but I did my best, working up to late hours in the morning to help to get the reporting part of the paper turned out. But from that time I feared for the fate of the paper, which, I will say, had the promise, though not the potency of success. I forget for how long the “Times” ran, but I know attempts were made to keep it alive, and I think it was as much from the difficulty of organisation as from the difficulty of money that led to its stoppage. There were reports of internal difficulties or differences among the proprietors that hastened the collapse of the paper.

I said Mr. Clarke was unfortunate in his editor. It was at the time of the break-up of the paper, or at any rate after Mr. Davin’s departure, he wrote and issued, but I think only for private circulation, a poetic satire on both Mr. Clarke and Mr. Allen, which, if it had the merit of cleverness, had the demerit of scurrility. Mr. Davin afterwards emigrated to Canada, and earned distinction on the Canadian Press.

I may here, though. I am anticipating the period in point of time, refer to the “Daily Post,” which was founded by the M'Mordie family, Mr. Hans M'Mordie being the literary adviser, while his brother, the doctor, kept a close eye on all the rest. The late Lord Mayor, Mr. R. J. M'Mordie, was a younger brother; but he also took an interest, a junior interest, in it. With Hans M'Mordie, who was geniality personified, anyone could have got on, but the doctor was not cast in the same mould. I always could get on well with him, but his staff did not get on well with him, and on more than one occasion his sub-editor deserted him or he disposed of his sub-editor summarily; and as a friend I was asked to go over to Callender Street and help them to get the paper out, which I did several times — and for several nights at a time.

Mr. M'Mordie was a strong Liberal and land refomer, whose bete noir was Lord Dufferin, just as he was the god of the idolatry of Mr. MacKnight, of the “Whig.” I cannot say whether Mr. M'Mordie started the paper for the purpose of flagellating that nobleman, but he went for him without scruple or mercy. Lord Dufferin’s ideas and practices in the matter of tenant-right did not harmonise with the ideas of Mr. M'Mordie, and, I will admit, of many other Liberals. The “Post” ran a course for many months, and contained many slashing articles from the pen of Mr. M'Mordie and others. I could not honestly say that it did not deserve to succeed; but it did not succeed. There may have been financial reasons for this; but I think much of it was owing to friction among the staff. Mr. Sam Abernethy, previously of the “Morning News,” and afterwards of the Belvue Hotel, Newcastle, was the business manager, and if personal popularity and business capacity could alone have made a paper succeed they should have done so in his case.

There is one incident in connection with one of my visitations that will interest some old Queen’s College men at all events. Jas. Clarence Newsome, for some time, if, indeed, not for all, forged much of the thunder for the “Post.” He was a man of phenomenal memory, of great classical knowledge, and at one time gained one of the highest Government positions in India or China in open competition against the graduates of all the universities of the kingdom. He did not, however, satisfy the doctors as to his health or habits as fitting him for Oriental life. But he could have lived, and for a time did live, by passing examinations and gaining scholarships at Trinity College and other institutions, for he could have passed examinations on any subject in which memory was an asset. His memory was, as I have said, phenomenal, but his judgment was as faulty as his memory was prodigious. It was said of him that he committed to memory a whole page either of the “Times” or “Whig,” and afterwards repeated it with scarcely an error. I remember chatting with him on one occasion when a General Election was coming. He had an opinion on the prospect of the election, and so had I. To support his judgment he started off, and from John o’ Groats to Land’s End he repeated off hand the names of all the counties and boroughs, the political complexion of the members, and the size of the majority in each. But when it came to draw conclusions and to form an opinion on the trend of politics at the time he was at sea, and if his return had been dependent on the accuracy of his prognostications he never would have returned to land.

On another occasion, during the bombardment of Alexandria, when many places and names familiar in Scripture and in secular history were cropping up daily, I said in effect to him, “Newsome, you have a fine chance now. The history of all the places mentioned must be familiar to you. Why not from day to day trace out the principal features of interest, and point out the changes that time has brought about?” He jumped at the idea at once, and said he would do it. On the following or the succeeding night he presented me with pride with proofs of at least six columns of matter. I read it with amazement at any man being able to produce so much historical matter in the time. But from start to finish there was not a reference to the modem history or association of any place or to the bombardment. Herodotus might have written it so far as its relation to modern life was concerned. That was James Clarence Newsome. Peace to his ashes!

While dealing with the rise and fall of local newspapers during the period under review, I may refer to others that have risen and fallen, and to one that has risen and is stiff flourishing. The “Morning News,” an old tri-weekly under Roman Catholic ownership, but neutral politics, had enjoyed a considerable success until the cheapening of news and the strength of views drove tri-weeklies rather out of the field. The “Morning News” had some good writers in its time, the most noted in my recollection being R. A. Wilson, who, as “Barney Maglone” brightened its columns with his quaint Irish humour in poetry and prose. Wilson was quaint in his style, in person as well as in his prose and poetry. His soft hat, his sharp dark features, and his martial cloak rendered him a unique figure, as genial as he was interesting, and as Bohemian as her was brilliant.

In the early 'eighties, when Parnellism raised its horrid head in Ulster, the late Mr. H D. Gray, of the “Freeman,” conceived the idea of purchasing the “Morning News,” and turning it into a daily in the interest of the new leader and the new cause. Happening to be in Dublin about the time rumour was busy in this matter, I had many conversations with Mr. Gray and his then manager, and warned them against the folly of the proceeding from the financial point of view. I had heard before this that the Gray family were laying pat treasures for the purpose of rebuilding the “Freeman” premises, which were then badly in need of repair; and on account of old associations I did not like to hear of the money that would have provided decent accommodation for the friends I had left behind wasted in a foolish, though fond endeavour to preach Parnellism in Ulster.

I remember pointing out to them that if the Hendersons, of the “News-Letter,” proposed to start a paper in Cork and gave the value of the London “Times” for a penny, that there would be a dead set against it, and that success, financial or otherwise, would be impossible. Their proposition was to publish the “Morning News” daily. I told them that if they did that and maintained the old position of the “Morning News” they might get readers, but if they developed Parnellite Home Rule — Parnellism and crime was a later development — they would meet with ruin.

But the powers and men, whether financial or political, willed it otherwise. The “Morning News” was started as a daily, with much booming of the special wire which at that time wad supposed to be a miraculous news gatherer as well as a rapid mechanical provider. And with it came “Doctor” Byrne as its Editor. He was always called Doctor, though I am not sure that he ever took a degree, either medical or otherwise. But he was a fine and vigorous writer, and after a meteoric career in Belfast returned to the “Freeman,” for which he wrote till his death many years afterwards. I remember meeting him many years afterwards in Dublin, where he told me that our people in the North were the greatest fools in existence. “Don’t you know,” he said, “that our people would be always fighting among themselves, and you Northerners could come in and take control of the Parliamentary machine and run the whole show.” I told him that was very likely but that even for that prospect I did not think our people would go in for Home Rule; and at any rate I thought it was a strange argument for Home Rule that those who clamoured for it and in whose interest it would be given, if given, would be eternally fighting among themselves. I do not think I am giving even the memory of my old friend away in stating this, for it was the common talk of many of the Nationalists I knew at that time, and I believe it is as true to-day as then, for the elements of national strife are greater and stronger.

To return. Mr. Cray came, and “Dr.” Byrne with him, but they did not conquer. The paper had only been started a short time when the Phoenix Park murders occurred, and in his leader on the subject Byrne introduced the old and suggestive reference to the Roman cutting off the head of the tallest poppy — it will be remembered that the old Under Secretary and the new Chief Secretary, Lord Frederick Cavendish, were struck down at the same time. Such a reference was not calculated to commend the new paper and the new development, but it went on languishing for some years, when it disappeared, becoming merged in the present “Irish News.”

I remember some years afterwards meeting Mr. Gray in Gatti’s coffee-house in the Strand, in London, when the process of winding up the unfortunate concern was in progress. I reminded him of my “neutral” suggestion, but he candidly confessed that he was more concerned at the time with politics than property, and he took his risk. “I have today,” he said, “signed a cheque making a total of £17,000 up till the present, and I do not yet know how many more it will cost me.” Rumour had it that it cost him seven or eight, if not ten, thousand more. Such was the cost of the first effort to establish Parnellism in Ulster.

It was before this period, in fact during the Franco-Prussian war, that Messrs. W. & G. Baird started the “Belfast Evening Telegraph.” This firm, as I said formerly, printed the Belfast election circular for the Lanyon-Mulholland party in 1868, and had therefore a stock of newspaper type — the brothers were enterprising job printers at the time. Whether the idea of an evening paper had been in their mind before or not I cannot say, but I remember one morning the hoardings of the town were covered with a bold line “New Evening Paper.” Beyond a doubt these bills were issued by the late Mr. S. E. M'Cormick, proprietor of the old “Banner.” On the next or second day on the same hoardings, and in a large line below “New Evening Paper” appeared the line “Belfast Evening Telegraph,” and in a day or two afterwards the first issue of that paper, a perfect infant in evening journalistic form, appeared, thus forestalling the “Evening Press,” which was Mr. M'Cormick’s title, and which paper appeared for some weeks or months, and then bade Belfast farewell. The “Evening Telegraph” has grown and prospered since under the able and enterprising guidance of Mr. R. H. H. Baird, J.P., the son of Mr. William Baird, the senior partner and founder of the original firm and of the newspaper. The business had been transferred to Royal Avenue before Mr. Baird’s death; but its proportions and those of the paper were small compared to what they are now under the energetic and enterprising control of Mr. R. H. H. Baird and his brother, Major Wm. Baird, who, however, has for years devoted his principal attention to the service of his country, and who in connection with the artillery at Kilroot has earned the respect of the military authorities and of all the soldiers and civilians with whom he has been brought into contact.

The rise of “The Ulster Echo,” and its, I hope, temporary demise, is too delicate a subject for me to refer to. I may share with the Kaiser the responsibility for its pause; but I will claim this for it at least, that during its existence its one aim and object was to uphold and defend the interests and honour of Belfast and Ulster, and to support the cause of the Ulster Volunteers, who did so much at home to save the Union, and who afterwards, as this Ulster Division, have done, and are doing, so much, and at such sacrifice of life, to defend the honour and the interests of Great Britain and the Empire in Flanders and in France. The fact that this article is now appearing in its columns is an evidence that its elder brother, “The Witness,” is still alive and flourishing and labouring for the same causes, with special attention to the Presbyterian Church, with whose interests it is so indissolubly bound up.

To be continued...

From The Witness, 20th October 1916.

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

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Fifty Years of Belfast Life (1866-1916) part 15



I am not, as I have indicated, pursuing a straight or regular course in the production of my wanderings into the past. I am following rather a zig-zag course such as a belligerent or neutral steamer takes to evade the attention of a submarine. From the pulpit to the Press, from ministers of religion to ministers of Police Court justice is a long step, and that is what I am now taking. Journalists in their time play many parts, and during the first decade of the last half century I had my share of variety. From the “Banner of Ulster,” with its Presbyterian ministers and old Liberalism, to the “News-Letter,” with its ministers of all Protestant sections and Conservatism; from that to the Police Court, with its magistrates and prisoners, male and female after their kind, and with the banning of all politics; then to the "Freeman’s Journal," with its priests and people and its dream of Home Rule; and then back to Belfast, “The Witness” and Presbyterian ministers again, with “The Ulster Echo” thrown in. If that is not enough of variety in this world of change, I do not know what is.

And there was unity, harmony, and valuable experience in them all. I was no more responsible for the policy of the “News-Letter” or the “Freeman” than I was for the decision of the magistrates in the Police Court. I was merely a part of the machine, and did my part in it as well as I could. I attended and reported Orange meetings, Nationalist meetings, Liberal meetings ana Conservative meetings, Protestant meetings and Roman Catholic meetings. All I had to do was to make the reports long or short according to the importance of the proceedings, the demands of space, and the interest of each class of readers in the subject the newspaper represented.

As I feel I have perhaps wearied the reader with my wanderings over the first lustrum of the half-century, I intend to pass on to the second, and as in the greater part of that I was either out of journalistic life or out of Belfast, I will venture to introduce some purely personal experiences in the hope that they may interest and not bore the reader. As to the “News-Letter,” let, me say that I carry with me nothing but the most pleasant recollections of my “News-Letter” days) and especially of its then proprietor, Mr. James Alex. Henderson. If he was somewhat autocratic, he was also courteous; if he was exacting to secure accuracy in his reports, and especially in the publication of names, he was also just. If he was a newspaper proprietor, he was also a gentleman,. I hope I shall be pardoned for giving one illustration of his combined qualities, though in relation to them the last is the one that is most deeply implanted in my memory. On one occasion — it was in 1869, I think — I reported a meeting of the Belfast Presbytery to the extent of three or four columns — I think it was the last meeting of the Presbytery open to lay reporters. It was a time of strong feeling and of strong personalities, and I must confess that in regard to these the members of the Presbytery of that day were not exempt from their share of human failing. The meeting was the “liveliest” Presbytery meeting I ever attended from a purely journalistic point of view. The “reportable” business lasted from a little after eleven o’clock till after three, when the late Rev. Adam Montgomery, the esteemed and popular Clerk, took the desk, not the floor, and said, “Now brethren, I think we may begin business.”

It was necessary to have copy ready for the hands at six o’clock, so I hurried off to write out my notes, making arrangements for the routine business with the clerical correspondent of the paper. I may say that my friend then, and my friend still, Mr. John M'Bride, of the “Whig” left with me, and made a similar arrangement with the clerical correspondent of his paper. As a matter of fact, my friend forgot to send in the sequel, and Mr. M'Bride’s friend remembered, with the result that a resolution of the Presbytery, which happened to be in favour of the “News-Letter” policy, appeared in the “Whig,” and did not appear in the “News-Letter.” Of this, however, I was ignorant when I called in the office about midday of the day of publication. I then learned that there were wigs on the green; that a complaint had been made to “the governor” that I had left this out of the paper because I was a Radical. I guessed who had made the complaint and why. I had acted during the ’68 elections as secretary for one of Mr. M'Clure’s committees, a Presbyterian committee, and this had identified me with politics, perhaps more than would have been otherwise the case as a mere reporter. Against all advice, I bearded Mr. Henderson in his room, told him what I had heard, and gave my explanation, which seemed to satisfy him.

The incident had passed from my mind for some months. Then there was an election for Derry, when Mr. Baxter, a London solicitor, in the Conservative interest, opposed Serjeant (afterwards Judge) Dowse in the Liberal interest. Mr. Henderson sent for me one day during the contest, and from a question he put to me I concluded that he had been asked to get my father, who was then alive and a Derry voter, to vote for Mr. Baxter. To be just, however, he did not ask me, but I suspected that was his object, and I forestalled him, telling him that I would not ask my father to vote for Baxter, and that even if I did I believed he would refuse. He then told me that he had sent for me for another reason. He wanted me to go to Derry — this was a fortnight before the election — and send a daily report of the progress of events there, merely emphasising that there was great interest felt in the election, and I should keep the readers well posted up. I did so to the best of my ability and habits of accuracy, and without complaint. As I was leaving the room Mr. Henderson called me back, and said he had personally selected me to go to Derry to let me clearly understand that no impression remained on his mind that my private politics would interfere with my duty to him. That is one of the incidents of my career which I look back upon with special satisfaction, and one of the reasons why I feel such respect for the memory of Mr. Jas. Alexander Henderson and all that bear his name.

A reporter’s life in those days was a hard and varied, but on the whole a pleasant one. In those days a reporter had to be able to do anything, or, at least, to appear able to report anything from a legal judgment or sermon to a concert or a race meeting. We had not the specialisation that there is now, when every department has got its specialist, and when we have got my good friend “An Old Fogey,” who is a specialist on every subject from botany to butchering, and on every great master of literature from Shakespeare to Andrew Nance. Nowadays the papers have their musical expert and their football expert, and the chiefs of the staff would no more think of expecting one expert to encroach on the department of another than Mr. John Redmond would ask Mr. Wm. Murphy, of the "Independent,” to assist him in organising the National, or Nationalist, Volunteers.

I will let the uninitiated into the secret of how we, or at least I, did duty as a specialist in those good old days. One of the earliest tasks allotted to me was to write a three-quarter column of a notice of an oratorio produced by the classical Harmonist Society. Now, I was as ignorant of music then as I am now, and that is infinite. What did I do? I had a friend from the country who was a judge of music, and something of a composer, too. I purchased the score, and got my friend to go with me to the concert. He was so transported with the music that he kept beating time and humming all the while, which attracted more attention than I cared for. On leaving the concert I seized one of the leading members of the society, and marched the two off to my lodgings. When they had agreed as to the character of the rendering of any part of the performance — solo or chorus, vocal or instrumental — I got them to express it in technical terms, and took a careful note. I was able out of the introductory words in the book to vamp up something about the oratorio, and added I that to my friends’ criticism, with some grace words or notes of my own. The next day I was told in the office that some member of the society had said that my notice was one of the best that had appeared. Tell it not in Gath! That was how I won a little temporary musical reputation. I failed, however, to live up to it. The strain would have been too great.

Then there was horse-racing. I knew, and know, nothing about horse-racing in the way either of sport or gamble, but I reported several race-meetings in my “News-Letter” days. The way in which I did it was this. I got hold of some friend who did know something — the late John Davidson and the living James Davidson being my chief “backers” in those days. They supplied me with the technical details of the various races, which I wrote out as carefully as if copying some classic. I was able to do the necessary padding in those days better, I suspect, than I could do it now. That was the way we specialised in those good old days now, alas, gone for ever. The all-round man’s day is over, and the day of the specialist has come. At the same time, I feel bound to pay my tribute to the present staffs of reporters in the city, who, in thoroughness and capacity and accuracy and judgment compare with those of any similar city in the kingdom.

Among the incidents of my “News-Letter” days there is one which connects itself and me with the late Mr. Johnston, M.P., of whom I have many pleasant memories. This, however, in some respects is not a pleasant one. On one of the very few days at that early period of my life I was obliged to remain at home for the day. In the evening my chief called at my lodgings, and asked me to go to the Orange Hall in College Street, as, I understood, to report a soiree, which was not exacting on time or brain. I strolled leisurely round to the hall about halfpast eight o’clock, when, instead of tea, ladies, and cake, I found the hall filled with sturdy and horny-handed Orangemen, with Mr. Wm. Johnston at their head. The meeting had started, but it was recommenced for my benefit, and for a couple of hours I had to listen to the Orangemen denouncing Mr. Johnston and Mr. Johnston defending himself. It appeared that Mr. Johnston had voted in favour of the Ballot Bill, and it was for this he was being called to account forcibly and vigorously. It was after eleven o'clock when I left the building, and I had a report of about two and a half columns in the paper in the morning.

I remember that though Mr. Johnston made his main speech at the beginning, I wrote out first the speeches of the others, as my scattered notes were more difficult to decipher, and a careful summary is more difficult than a mere verbal transcription of notes, which is largely mechanical. The result was that Mr. Johnston’s speech came last in the order of writing though first at the meeting. And I was writing, as fast as I could till morning almost dawned. Close upon four o’clock, the hour of going to Press, Mr. Joe Wilson, the night foreman, rushed up to the room in a fever of excitement as I was on my last pages, of notes, and telling me that he would “miss the post” if I did not finish at once. I remember rising from my seat, and writing as I rose the last words of my notes, and in my hurry I neglected to put the conventional “Loud applause” at the end. What impressed the incident on my mind was that the next day Mr. Johnston, sent a letter of complaint, which was duly published, alleging that the omission of the applause at the end might have suggested that his speech had not met with the approval of the meeting. I admit the omission was unintentional and arose purely from the hurry. At the same time if I had been cruel and strictly truthful, applause, rather than “loud applause,” which probably I would have used from force of habit, would have expressed the approval. Certainly Mr. Johnston for a season lost popularity among at least sections of the Orangemen on account of that and other Liberal votes. Indeed, on that and on land Mr. Johnston almost always supported the Liberals, and I was subsequently present when he received a cheque for £1,000, subscribed by farmers for his services in connection with the Land Act of 1880. Mr. Johnston received the cheque, offered a few words of thanks, and then asked the friends who had assembled to excuse his hurried departure as he had to catch a train. And he eft some of the donors rather disappointed and dry.

To be continued...

From The Witness, 13th October 1916.

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

Wednesday, 5 October 2016


When there's a lull in the fighting,
    When shadows of night shade the plain,
When the cannon has long ceased its booming,
    When peace o'er the earth seems to reign;
When the soldier is resting, preparing,
    The morrow to face with the brave,
When the dead of the battle are buried
    In a blood-sodden sort of a grave.

I dream in my sleep of the homeland,
    Of the land that is far, far away,
Of the ones that I love, oh, so dearly,
    Of the youngsters so happy at play.
Of the home on the hill-side, o'erlooking
    The plain where the rivers entwine,
Of the trees and the woods and the pastures,
    Of the forests of fir and of pine;

I partake of the pleasures of childhood,
    Of the games and the sports of a boy,
I finger with tenderest longing
    Each dearly familiar toy.
I live in the scenes of my childhood,
    So happy and careless and free;
But a blast of the bugle awakes me,
    And the fairest of memories flee.

(Written in a trench while serving with the 
British Expeditionary Forces.)

From The Witness, 6th October 1916
Image: The Artist's Own Dug-Out on the Albert-Braye Roadside by William Topham, 1916.