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.

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