Tuesday 11 April 2017

Fifty Years of Belfast Life (1866-1917) part 40



My mind and my inquiries are still associated with 1886. I have now to refer to one of the darkest of these, and I do so with considerable diffidence and pain. But I feel that it would be like a performance of “Hamlet” with the Prince’s part out if I did not allude to the riots of that year. It is not to revive unpleasant associations, but to complete historic memories that I do so. The events left painful impressions on all who had regard for the good name and character of the city, and made very discreditable reading both in fact and comments in the Press of the day. “Rioting in Belfast” was a regular headline in the English Press for weeks, with varying and exciting sub-headings, which filled us with shame. The reason this feature remains strongly with me is that not for my sins, but for my health, I spent some weeks in England at the time, and had to hide my head for shame morning after morning as the other guests at the same health establishment discussed and bitterly commented on the news. There was some rioting in June, but this had come to an end before I left; and it was with amazement I heard and read of the renewed outbreaks. I read of wreckings and shootings, of murders and lootings. I read in one set of papers about Shankill Road rowdies and ruffians; and in another of the Falls Road rowdies and ruffians; and according to the paper I read it was one or other of these that caused all the trouble. And I well remember on the morning of my return, that a deputation of the local authorities waited on me appealing to me not to follow some journals and some citizens in the cry of “Morley’s murderers,” but to endeavour to calm the wild spirit that was abroad.

I may say, however, that neither the able deputy who represented me in my absence or myself ever adopted the phrase “Morley’s murderers” — it was the term applied by many Protestants to the Southern police, who had been brought into the city in large numbers, Mr. Morley being then Chief Secretary — though neither he nor I could regard with equanimity all we heard and read about the excesses, at any rate alleged, regarding the constabulary.

These riots formed the subject of inquiry I before a Royal Commission, which dealt with more or less — in some cases I could not at that time help thinking less — impartiality the whole business. But to begin at the beginning, I find the following account of the beginning of the riots in “Irving’s Annals of the Time,” under date June 4, 1886: — “A fatal riot occurs in Belfast between about 2,000 shipwrights and a body of navvies, the latter of whom are employed at the Alexandra Dock. The occurrence was brought about by a dispute two days since, in the course of which one of the navvies was wounded with a spade, the result being that his assailants, who were shipwrights, were dismissed from their employment. Their dismissal of their fellow-workmen exasperated the shipwrights, and at dinner hour yesterday they marched in a body to the dock, and fell upon the navvies with bludgeons and iron bars, wounding several of them severely, and chasing a number of them into the water, one young man being drowned.” As this is an outside, and, I presume, impartial record, I reproduce it, merely saying that in a few days all was quiet at the docks and in the Queen’s Island. I may here remark that Sir Edward Harland, who was Mayor at the time, in his evidence at the Commission said he had threatened to close the yard if there was any more disturbance or interference with workers; and that, in his opinion, ended the trouble at the dock. But the area of trouble extended to other areas, and following the funeral of the Roman Catholic boy who was drowned in the Alexandra Dock attack. There were attacks and counter-attacks — we are now familiar with this phrase in more extended warfare — spreading through all the streets between the Falls and the Shankill Roads. These roads and the intervening streets were the scenes of wrecking and looting and shooting and bludgeoning that for the time kept a great part of the city in a state of terror. This continued for several days, and, I might say, nights; and then came a lull, broken only by trials of prisoners arrested by the police, inquests on persons who had been killed, and in one case at any rate a charge of wilful murder against some member of the Royal Irish Constabulary unknown.

Then came the Twelfth of July, and one of the largest Orange processions for many years. It was stated at the time that 40,000 or 50,000 took part in the march through the city. The Rev. R. R. Kane, Grand Master of the Orangemen, headed the procession. He was a man of note in his day, of great physical stature and great physical energy, and by no means a man who would turn his cheek to the smiter. Personally he was most amiable; but when the fire of strong feeling lit up his eye and his pride as an Orangeman and a Protestant was roused there was no idea of halting or half measures with him. However, the day passed over in peace, and it was noticeable that in his speech the Grand Master showered eulogies on Lord Hartington and Mr. Bright, which was probably the first time he had said a good or kind word about Liberals in his life. The day following, however, a change came over the spirit of the local dream. An Orange drumming party leaving Grosvenor Street to take part in the opening of an Orange Hall was stoned by the Roman Catholics, and the Protestants, as the reports of the “Echo” said at the time, retorted in kind. Then we had some days more, during which, among others, a private soldier was shot. And again a lull. But in August, after the break-up of a Sunday-School party in connection with St. Enoch’s Church, (the Rev. Dr. Hanna), there was some house-wrecking and then stones and fury for several days. Here is the way in which the reporter of the “Echo,” who was something of a humorist, commences his notes of one day’s proceedings:— “In town to-day heaps of stones in various parts of the well-known districts classified as disturbed testify to the valour and right of the men who engage in stone-throwing as a pleasant recreation. We have surfeit of this class of amusement, however, and so have the police, and the sooner an end is put to this disgraceful sport the better. Two companies of the ‘Black Watch’ — a Highland regiment that has made for itself a reputation and a name — arrived in Belfast this afternoon. They were heartily received as they passed through the streets,” But the rioting went on without intermission till the end of the month, when the feeling calmed down, and triais of rioters, with a Royal Commission, were the only things that occupied the newspapers of the day.

I will not trouble my readers or myself to detail the amount of damage done to property and to life and limb during the weeks that the riots continued. Bad as the loss in all these respects, the feeling created in regard to the Royal Irish Constabulary was, if possible, worse. Mr. John Morley was Chief Secretary at the time, and he was credited with having made a statement previous to this that the Royal Irish Constabulary would soon put down Belfast opposition to Home Rule. At the outbreak of the riots a force of police, chiefly from the South and West, were imported into Belfast; and it was alleged by the Protestants of the class affected that they did not spare their truncheons or their firearms against the Protestants. I cannot offer an opinion on that point; but I will say that on my return to Belfast allegations of their barbarity met me at every step, and from the class of men far removed from association with Orangemen or the Shankill Road so far as that represented the fighting element in the body. Mr. Morley denied the charge that he had sent down Southern policemen to shoot Belfast Protestants, which was the crude way in which it was popularly expressed. But certainly the presence of these police did not smooth matters down at the time, and especially on the Shankill Road. In fact, for several days the police were kept off the Shankill Road, the military doing all the work, and to judge from their looks and words did not relish doing what they termed police duty. I may say that the Rev. Dr. Hanna and the Rev. Dr. Kane did not spare the police, and attributed the continuation of the riots to their presence and action and the feeling they provoked. Of course, both gentlemen were called firebrands by the authorities, and not the least by Colonel Forbes, the Resident Magistrate, whom Dr. Hanna afterwards refused to meet even officially on account of some things that he had said. I have no desire to discuss these matters at this time of the day; but I may say this, that I suspect there were clergymen on the other side who did as much as they did to fan the popular flame, if it needed fanning. But they did not do it so openly. Their case then, as now, is that all the Roman Catholics are harmless, innocent lambs, who are always the victims, and act in self-defence and in the way of reprisals. They were like the Germans. They laid in a fine stock of stones to prepare for eventualities, and then pleaded that it was the Protestants who provoked them. We were told that it was the Protestants who provoked the riots originally, and on account of Home Rule. But no account was taken of the provocation of the navvies at the docks by telling the Protestants that when they had Home Rule there would be no work for the Protestants. It is true the Protestants should not have minded that. But then Protestants cannot conceal their feelings and reserve their wrath so that they may appear to be provoked and net provokers, as their opponents can do. Take an example. The year before the war, on the eve of the Twelfth of July, I was myself asked a Roman Catholic in a shop where I was making a purchase if I was going to the demonstration on the “Twelfth.” I said I was not sure. I was told that I should go, as it was likely it would be the last chance I would have. I need not say this did not irritate or aggravate me. I merely smiled. But if such a suggestion, with its natural inference, were made to the men, say, on the Queen's Island, I am not sure that it would have made them less determined that it would not be the last.

I hope to refer to the Commission of Inquiry into the riots and its composition and report next week.

To be continued...

From The Witness, 13th April 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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