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A Narrow Sea - Episode 57

A Narrow Sea - Episode 57

Inventors, bankers and political leaders
Written by Dr Jonathan Bardon

Indefatigable migrants, Ulster-Scots and their descendants certainly made their mark across the globe. In part this was due to the emphasis on the value of education in the Presbyterian Church long before there was any state compulsion.

Educational and cultural links between Scotland and Ulster remained strong. Founded in 1810, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution was modelled on Scottish academies, and like them, built up a reputation for excellence in mathematics, medicine and science.

James Thomson was a noted professor of mathematics there. At the age of twelve he had been on the rebel side at the Battle of Ballynahinch in 1798 and later wrote a vivid account of it.

His son William Thomson, created Lord Kelvin, became one of the greatest scientists of the nineteenth century. He spent most of his career at the University of Glasgow. As well as being a talented inventor, Kelvin solved the technical problems of laying the first transatlantic telegraph cable, published a ground-breaking mathematical analysis of electricity and formulated the first and second Laws of Thermodynamics.

Sir James Murray, born at Culnady in County Londonderry, studied at Edinburgh and was appointed an apothecary at the Belfast Fever Hospital. In 1829, while he was resident physician to the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin, he invented Milk of Magnesia as a remedy for indigestion.

John Boyd Dunlop came from Scotland to practise as a vet in Belfast where, in 1887, while experimenting on his son’s tricycle, he invented the pneumatic tyre.

Robert Lloyd Praeger, born in Holywood in 1865, became a botanist of world renown. His father was Dutch but his mother, Maria Patterson, was an Ulster Presbyterian. His sister Rosamund became a distinguished sculptor and illustrator of children’s books.

More recently, in 1967, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, born in Lurgan in 1943, was the first to discover stars emitting radio pulses, known as pulsars, the results of huge explosions or supernovas.

Migrating to North America in earnest from the early 1700s, Ulster Presbyterians and their descendants – known there as the ‘Scotch-Irish’ – played a pivotal role in the development of the United States. Eleven American Presidents had Ulster-Scots ancestry. Four of them, however controversial their decisions and actions, have an assured place in the history books: Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon. The names of the others are less well remembered. Nevertheless, Robert Polk, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley – presidents at various times between 1845 and 1901 – did much to ensure that the USA emerged as a great power in the twentieth century.

Andrew Mellon, son of an immigrant from County Tyrone, took pride in his Ulster-Scots ancestry, though he had a native Irish surname. A brilliantly successful banker and industrialist, he was considered the third richest man in the United States in the 1920s.

Appointed Secretary of the Treasury in 1921, Mellon served for eleven years in that post, and then as US ambassador to the United Kingdom in 1932-33.

Though Irish Protestants never formed more than five per cent of New Zealand’s population, two of them became Prime Ministers there.

John Ballance, brought up on a farm near Glenavy in County Antrim, after spending four years in Belfast as an apprentice to an ironmonger, set up business in Birmingham. There he attended evening classes at the Midland Institute, before emigrating to New Zealand in 1866.

Settling at Taupo Bay, he opened a jewellery shop and published a newspaper. Even though he served in the cavalry, he was arrested for criticising compulsory military conscription. That did not prevent him being elected as a member for Wanganui in 1884 and becoming Prime Minister between 1891 and 1893.

New Zealand was the first state in the world to have what later would be called the ‘Welfare State’ to help the poor and disadvantaged – this was largely thanks to the work of John Ballance.

William Ferguson Massey, born in Limavady in 1856, emigrated with his parents to Auckland and prospered as a farmer, pioneering the use of the threshing machine.

He was on the top of a haystack when in 1894 he received a note skewered on the tip of a pitchfork requesting him to stand as a Conservative candidate. Duly elected, he became Prime Minister in 1913.

Massey ensured that New Zealand gave its full support to the Allied cause during the Great War and was one of the signatories of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. It was he who steered New Zealand towards Dominion Status.

John Ballance was in favour of ‘Home Rule’ for Ireland; Massey was strongly opposed. Massey’s fiercest critic was another Ulsterman, Jack McCullough. A Christian Socialist, a pacifist and leader of the trade unions crushed by Massey in 1913, McCullough helped to build up the New Zealand Labour Party and, in his eighties, was a member of the government of New Zealand.


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