In some respects the years and events with which I have been, and am, dealing belong to ancient history; and to some ancient history is lost in old observance. But, correctly considered, there is nothing of history that has not a connection with the present and some influence upon it.
There are some, it is true, who are so absorbed in the past that they cannot bring their mind upon the present at all, and there are others who think only of and in the present, and take no thought of the past either for example or warning. There are some who are always thinking and bragging about their ancestors, and some who do not know, or at least seldom admit, that they had grandfathers, and are even ashamed of their fathers. I remember an incident that occurred in this connection in the local Turkish bath. The bath one night was crowded, and between the semi-darkness and the disguise the requisite dress for the bath produced, it was difficult to recognise anyone. To this crowd entered a local gentleman somewhat more elevated in drink than in character. The gentleman knew me, and recognising me in my disguise, he kept shouting out my name and talking to me and at me to an extent that was embarrassing to a modest person like myself. After some time he began to dilate on the virtues of some of his grandfathers and other ancestors who had gained distinction and won trophies in some Irish rebellion or other. I had borne his babble without retort for some time; but at this stage I remarked that some of us had greater reason to be proud of our ancestors than our ancestors would have to be proud of us, and the shot went home and reduced my friend to silence.
Now, the events with which I am dealing go back exactly thirty years; and as these years are supposed to constitute a generation I think I may fairly describe the people of that time as the ancestors of those of the present. There may be a few survivors of the time like myself who move among the present generation as visitors from an ancient ------- who can recall the time; but to the majority they belong, I fear, to an ancient period, with which the present generation take as little interest as Irish Nationalists do in the present war. Now, one of my objects in recalling some of the events of that period is to tell the present generation what their fathers did in regard to Home Rule in the hope that the story may lead them to prove as worthy of their ancestors as these ancestors have proved to be worthy of them.
The last quarter of 1885 and the first half of 1886 witnessed the rise and fall of the first Home Rule Bill — and it has not recovered from that fall yet. Mr. Winston Churchill, in his life of his father, says that the two places that killed that Bill were Birmingham and Belfast. The reference to Birmingham, of course, covers the great work of Mr. Chamberlain, and the second the decided, definite, and determined manifestation of resistance from the men of Belfast.
During the visit of the Marquis of Hartington, afterwards Duke of Devonshire, to Belfast in November, 1885, to open the Ulster Reform Club, and to be the chief guest at a banquet, his lordship said in relation to the rumours that were in the air about Home Rule, “If Ireland were a unanimous country, then it was possible that some guarantee — some settlement between England and Ireland, some settlement between nation and nation, might be possible; but Ireland, unfortunately, is not a unanimous country, and the difference which separates Ireland is not a slight or trifling difference.” Is history not repeating itself to-day? Is not that statement as true today in itself and in the inferences it suggests as when it was uttered? His lordship went on — “The Imperial Government cannot give to Irish representative bodies the entire control over the property, and perhaps over the existence, of those classes who, to some extent, have incurred the dislike of their fellow-countrymen.” Is the truth of this not being proved more and more at the present time? And then, “The Protestants of Ulster could not hope to receive fair play if they placed their hopes in a representative Assembly constituted in the city of Dublin.” Is this not said or written every day by the Protestants of Ulster? The late Mr. Robert MacGeagh, in a speech about this period, expressing similar sentiments and feelings as Lord Hartington, asked were the hostile character and dangerous disposition of the Nationalists not engraven on their memories by the pen of United Ireland and the dagger of the Phoenix Park assassins. Are the same fears and feelings not freshly impressed on our memories by the blood of the slaughtered soldiers and citizens of Dublin for the crime of supporting the British Government and by the movements and threats of the sedition mongers that stalk our land at the present hour?
As I have indicated more than once, at the time of Lord Hartington’s visit there was no real division in the local Liberal party. There were some who were more advanced on the question of tenant-right than others, and also more in advance as to the form of local government; but if there were any that were in favour of the granting of an Irish Parliament with an Irish-Executive, I did not know them or meet them. Indeed, the advanced Liberals of the time were only advanced in regard to legislation, and not in regard to politics, as the Nationalists of the time understood advancement. There were some that might have gone as far as the principle of the Irish Councils Bill, which, when brought in, Mr. Redmond accepted, but ultimately on the mandate of the Irish hierarchy rejected. Mr. Thomas A. Dickson was one of the most advanced of these; and I do not think such a scheme as was afterwards proposed entered into his head. He was a very able, active, and energetic politician, and enjoyed the personal friendship of Mr. Gladstone. Mr. Gladstone handed him his own copy of his great Land Bill, with his own notes, after his speech introducing it. And so far as his feelings toward Mr. Gladstone were concerned, they were more than respect; they, were almost reverence. And without suggesting anything in regard to his subsequent opinion and actions, I will say that I believe that his indisposition, to break with Mr. Gladstone was a stronger factor in regard to his acquiescence in the Home Rule Bill than were his views on Irish government. Mr. Dickson occupied, I should say, the most prominent position of any Ulster Liberal member in the counsels of the party, and he was asked to write a pamphlet on the Ulster-Irish question as one of a popular series of pamphlets on economic and political questions from the Liberal point of view. As he was a brother-in-law of the late Mr. Robert MacGeagh, with whom I was in daily touch for many years, I had ample opportunities of meeting Mr. Dickson and knowing much of his mind on the subject. I read all the proof sheets of the pamphlet, and it was a very able pamphlet; but I observed that a couple of pages or so that were in his original proofs did not appear in the pamphlet. It would be unfair to suggest that these were Unionist in tone; but, to say the least of it, they were not of a character that suggested a Dublin Parliament as the one solution of the Irish question. Mr. MacGeagh and I noticed the omission, and concluded that these pages and the views they expressed did not commend themselves to the censors of the pamphlet, the Editor of the series. And I knew that Mr. MacGeagh, who was one of the most shrewd of men and politicians I ever knew, drew very ominous conclusions as to the party trend from this fact, and from that time forward had more than doubts of Mr. Gladstone’s loyalty to the Legislative Union. And when the pilot balloon, was sent out by the London “Standard” that Mr. Gladstone was in a coming-on disposition towards Parnell and Home Rule, he felt it was a true indication of coming events. And it was the beginning of the end of his devotion to Mr. Gladstone, which was as strong, though not founded on such personal association, as the devotion of Mr. Dickson.
Mr. Dickson took a prominent part in the Hartington banquet and its arrangements; and amongst those who occupied principal seats at it were Mr. Campbell-Bannerman, who had been Chief Secretary to the dissolution of Parliament; Mr. Walker, Q.C.; Mr. Mitchell Henry, M.P.; Mr. Maurice Brook, M.P.; The MacDermott, Q.C.; Mr. W. H. Dodd, Q.C. I remember these in the light of the subsequent developments, or, at least, four of them. There was nothing in the history of any of them to suggest their subsequent developments on the question of Home Rule, or that Mr. Campbell-Bannerman as the leader of a great party would pile up accusations almost amounting to murder against British troops in the South African war. We know that Mr. Walker became Mr. Gladstone’s Home Rule Lord Chancellor; and all that I can say of him is that it was a case of the pervert becoming the most intolerant assailant of his old faith, for I do not believe that Mr. Walker was even a Liberal when he contested County Derry as a Liberal. At any I rate, he was far from Liberal on the land question. I spent an evening with him at dinner in a common friend’s house near Derry, and drove into the city with him at night; and I can only say that there were few Tories of the time that had not quite as advanced Liberal views on the land question as he had. The subsequent developments of The MacDermott and Mr. Dodd, now one of his Majesty’s honoured judges, we know; and all I can say of the latter is that all his friends, while rejoicing with him in the judicial position to which he has attained, could not, during the period in which he was a politician at any rate, fail to think of him with regret and sorrow as a friend who had lapsed from his early political faith.
As to Mr. Mitchell Henry and Mr. Maurice Brooks, both of whom I knew well, the only thing I can say of them is that they were among those who got into Parliament as nominal Home Rulers; and I believe they remained nominal Home Rulers, and no more, till their deaths. I was at one time a party to an incident which revealed the game that was going on in the country at the time. Mr. Henry, who represented Galway, was taking part in a political meeting in the county, at which the bishop of the Diocese. Bishop Duggan, whom I will describe as a fine old Irish gentleman as well as ecclesiastic, was playing a leading role — by deputy. I had been sent to Loughrea to report a speech of Mr. Mitchell Henry for the “Freeman” at a Home Rule meeting of the kind common at the time. Mr. Henry, seeing that I was a Protestant, took me aside and explained to me that the bishop wanted to commit him to denominational education; but he wanted to avoid that, and said that he intended to use throughout the phrase religious education, and if he at any time slipped into the word denominational I was to stick to religious.
The bishop subsequently took me aside and explained to me that Mr. Henry was trying to keep the meeting to Home Rule. Home Rule, he said, was all very well in its way, but denominational education was what he wanted; and he added, “I am going to put up a priest to make a speech on denominational education, and whatever you give of Henry be sure to give that, as I am determined that no meeting will go out of my diocese about Home Rule unless denominational education is mixed up with it.” I satisfied both, which was not an easy thing to do, having regard to my instructions as to space — I got none in any other matter. We are told the Church does not change. I am sure Bishop Duggan did not change. About twenty years afterwards I remembered the conversations I have given without giving the names to an eminent London journalist who had just arrived in Belfast from a tour in the West. My friend looked directly at me, and said, “Did you ever meet Bishop Duggan?” I told him I had, and that it was with him the clerical part of the conversation took place. “I just thought that,” he said, “for I saw him a few days ago, and he spoke of the subject to me in similar terms.”
So much as to what I may term the minority of the principal guests on this memorable occasion. Among the others we had at the principal table, in addition to Lord Hartington and two or three other lords, were Lord Waveney, the chairman; Sir Thos. M‘Clure, Mr. E. P. Cowan (afterwards Sir Knight), Rev. Dr. Kinnear, M.P.; Mr. W. Findlater, M.P.; Mr. W. P. Sinclair, Mr. James Musgrave (afterwards baronet), Mr. Daniel Taylor, Coleraine; Mr. John S. Brown, Mr. Arthur Sharman Crawford, Mr. R. G. Dunville, Mr. W. Kenny, Q.C. (afterwards Judge Kenny).
The banquet was a great success; and if there were any present who had doubt about Mr. Gladstone’s future action in regard to the Union none had any doubts as to the strong, blunt, honest heir of the Cavendishes, who was loyal to the last, and to whom, with Mr. Chamberlain, with Birmingham and Belfast (pace Mr. Winston Churchill), the first defeat of Home Rule was largely owing.
The dissolution had taken place, and the new elections may be said to have been proceeding at the time of Lord Hartington's visit. The election took place in December, and we had a lively time of it, indeed. It was the first election after the Redistribution Bill dividing up the counties and boroughs, and under which the officials entrusted with the work divided up and down in the most wondrous and tortuous ways in order to enable the Nationalists to win West Belfast. They made a great effort, bringing down their great pet and orator, Mr. Tom Sexton, to do the fighting for them. And bravely he fought and well, and slanged and slogged the Protestants and Unionists for all he was worth; and in eloquence of vituperation and misrepresentation his services were worth much. But Mr. James Haslett, who had already made his mark in the Council and political life of the city, and who was to go further afterwards, beat him by the narrow majority of 37. But he did not hold the seat long, as Mr. Sexton beat him in the following year. In North Belfast Mr. Alex. Bowman, who is still with us, opposed Sir Wm. Ewart as a Labour enthusiast, with a kind of Home Rule tinge, which, I suspect, he lost afterwards; but he only secured 1,330 votes as against 3,915 for the Unionist candidate. In the South Mr. Wm. Johnston get in on a wave of enthusiasm largely engineered by his having been cashiered from the office of Inspector of Fisheries on account of a political speech he made. It was somewhat ironical that it was a Conservative Government that had appointed him and a Conservative Government that dismissed him; but I must I say that it was thought at the time Mr. Johnston had earned dismissal, if he had not courted it. I well remember the late Mr. Robert L. Hamilton telling me that Mr. Johnston, in a letter to him while he was a Fishery Commissioner, had said that he thought God had inspired him to risk his position in order to save the country from Home Rule. Mr. Hamilton said that he had advised him to consider carefully the source of his inspiration, as it might have come from another quarter. Mr. John Workman contested the division as a Liberal, and Dr. Seeds, as representing the old Protestant Working Men’s Association, which must have been in extremis at the time, as neither he nor Mr. Workman polled one thousand votes.
The contest in the East was not, perhaps, as exciting as the West so far as Imperial politics were concerned; but it was more exciting so far as local politics were concerned. Mr. E. S. De Cobain had retired from his duties as Borough Cashier and his self-asserted position of dictator of his masters, came forward as the Orange and Conservative working-man candidate, for which his florid eloquence and inflated pretentiousness seem to have fitted him — till he was found out — for he gained the seat. Mr. J. P. Corry was put up by the Conservatives to oppose him; and he ran him very close within a little over one hundred votes. Apart from the developments as to his character, it was long a puzzle to many of us how this man was able for so long to carry captive the Orangemen, especially of the working classes, for to those who knew him he appeared little more than an over-scented popinjay and glib and pretentious charlatan. But he beat the old party leaders hollow. Mr. R. W. Murray contested the seat as a Liberal, and thus gave great annoyance to the Conservatives of the time; but his position in the life of the city and in the Liberal party justified the attempt. He polled, however, only a few less than nine hundred votes, which was small as against the combined vote of nearly six thousand votes of the other two.
To be continued...
From The Witness, 2nd March 1917.
The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle, editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.