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A Narrow Sea - Episode 48

A Narrow Sea - Episode 48

‘Mr O’Connell, look at Belfast and be a Repealer – if you can’
Written by Dr Jonathan Bardon

In the 1820s there was a drive, by all the main Protestant sects, to convert Catholics to Protestantism.

The Catholic Church responded vigorously.

A new generation of Catholic bishops organised the previously overlooked confirmation of adults and there was a fresh insistence on regular attendance at Mass, religious instruction and devout behaviour. The competition for souls heightened tensions and there was an alarming increase in sectarian clashes, especially in Ulster.

The ‘Catholic Renewal’ was accompanied by growing Catholic political self confidence. Educated Catholics had been bitterly disappointed that their expected emancipation did not immediately follow the Act of Union in 1800. The drive for Catholic Emancipation – that is, the right of Catholics to become MPs at Westminster – was brilliantly orchestrated by the Kerry lawyer, Daniel O’Connell.

Dr Henry Cooke, Ulster’s leading Presbyterian divine, declared that he contemplated Catholic emancipation with ‘horror, disapprobation and dismay’.

But Daniel O’Connell’s peaceful popular campaign eventually pressurised the Duke of Wellington’s government to yield, and in 1829 Catholic emancipation became law.

O’Connell’s next target was repeal of the Act of Union.

To resist the Repeal movement, Henry Cooke mobilised Presbyterians to join forces with Anglicans of the Established Church (the two groups having often been at odds with each other in the past).

Sons of Presbyterians who had fought the Crown in 1798 were now alarmed at the growth of Catholic power and many of them did not hesitate to support Cooke’s political stand.

O’Connell had to face massive hostile demonstrations when he travelled north in January 1841 and he was forced to leave Belfast protected by mounted police. In the other three provinces, great gatherings of O’Connell’s repealers, known as ‘monster meetings’, failed to persuade Westminster to abandon the Union. Opposed to violence, O’Connell’s movement began to run into the sand.

For the great majority in Ireland, the Union had failed to deliver prosperity. Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the price tenant farmers could get for their agricultural produce had fallen inexorably. And yet rents remained high because, as the population rose from five million in 1801 to eight and a quarter million by 1841, the demand for land was rising. (Was this mainly due to an increased birth rate?)

Only in the north-east corner of Ireland did the industrial revolution take deep root. For a time Belfast became the centre of the island’s cotton industry and then, from the late 1820s, the power-spinning of flax took off and tall mills began to dominate the town’s sky line. The need for specialised machinery prompted the formation of a flourishing engineering industry. Belfast became the fastest-growing urban centre in the United Kingdom. At a ‘Grand Conservative Demonstration’ held to celebrate Daniel O’Connell’s hasty departure in January 1841, Dr Cooke declared:

Look at the town of Belfast. When I was myself a youth I remember it almost a village. But what a glorious sight does it now present – the masted grove within our harbour – (cheers) – our mighty warehouses teeming with the wealth of every climate – (cheers) – our giant manufactories lifting themselves on every side – (cheers) – our streets marching on…And all this we owe to the Union. (Loud cheers)…Mr. O’Connell…Look at Belfast, and be a Repealer – if you can. (most enthusiastic cheering, and loud shouts of approbation).

The population of Belfast leaped from 19,000 in 1801 to well over 70,000 in 1841. As tens of thousands poured in from the countryside, particularly from the densely populated counties of mid-Ulster, the composition of the town’s population altered dramatically. The Belfast accent, once very similar to that of Ballymena (might this have been a touch Ulster-Scots?), now changed to become an accent clearly originating primarily in County Armagh – and Catholics, only a tiny minority at the start of the century, by the 1830s formed one third of Belfast’s population.

But the great majority of the inhabitants of Ulster continued to live in the countryside. Here the domestic linen industry, which had flourished until the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, was in steep decline. Spinning wheels and handlooms in rural Ulster could not compete with steam-powered machines in Belfast, Lanarkshire, Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire. The result was a drastic loss of income in rural Ulster.

Paying high rents for farms which were the smallest on average in Ireland, tenant farmers, labourers and increasingly redundant weavers were ever more dependent on what the overworked soil could produce.

Then, in the summer of 1845, disaster struck.

Crops of potatoes – the staple diet of the majority – were infected with a deadly fungus, phytophthora infestans, and rotted in the ground.

The Great Famine had begun.

Only parts of Ulster were afflicted in 1845. All of Ulster was ravaged in 1846 and in 1847 there were no more tubers left to be planted.

Their bodies weakened by hunger, people fell victim to disease. Thousands of fever-ridden, destitute victims poured into Belfast and other towns as the potato blight returned each year.

Those who did not die in the streets and workhouses, now sought escape to America, to England…and to Scotland.


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