The land of Hope and Betsy Gray
Of Orr, McCracken and Munro
The land where Mitchel sleeps today
To English thieves shall never go.
Ulster War Song by Brian O’Higgins
In August 1896, a memorial stone was erected on the gravesite of one of the most famous figures of the 1798 rebellion in Ulster, and one of the most famous heroines in Irish nationalist history, Betsy Gray. Following the decisive defeat of the mainly Presbyterian United Irishmen at the Battle of Ballynahinch in County Down, Gray had been killed along with her two brothers by vengeful British forces in an indiscriminate massacre of the local population.
On May 1st 1898, to commemorate the centenary of the Rising and of Gray’s death, a predominantly Catholic nationalist procession from Belfast travelled to the site to lay floral wreaths at the memorial stone. The next day, the memorial was found destroyed, having been torn to pieces with sledgehammers by locals incensed that a nationalist shrine had been erected in what was now firmly Orange country.
Indeed, it was indicative of the general theme of 1798 centenary commemorations in Ulster, which had been generally limited to the predominantly Catholic districts of Belfast and a scattering of middle-class Protestant nationalist literary societies and clubs. There were no such commemorations observed by the ordinary Presbyterians of Antrim or Down, many of whom were descendants of the vast majority of the rebels.
The allegiance of Protestant Ulster had dramatically shifted in 100 years, from spearheading the very first distinctively Irish republican movement, to Orangeism and loyalty to the British Crown. By the following century, Ulster Protestant nationalism as a tradition was on the verge of total extinction.
It has long been an integral cause of Irish nationalism for generations to win back Protestant Ulster and to fulfil Wolfe Tone’s objective of uniting Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter. After the shift in popular opinion of Ulster Protestants back towards unionism following the Act of Union, this became increasingly difficult to achieve. The folklorist and historian Seumas MacManus, famed for his book The Story of the Irish Race, wrote of this dilemma during the heights of the advanced nationalist movement of the early 20th century:
“Again and again the minds of men who wrought for Ireland were racked to find a plan for getting hold of the Protestant and making him a patriot – but racked in vain. Although many efforts to win Protestantism to our cause have failed, the stake is such an admittedly valuable one that it is worth playing for once more on a new system.”
But nonetheless it has become the great unknown of Irish nationalism, how does Orange and Green become reconciled? It is certainly something that much thought will need to be devoted towards, particularly by a nationalist Right eager to cut its teeth. The spectre of unionism is finally waning amongst Protestants, but nationalism is not taking its place.
1798 represented that brief epoch of Irish history where reconciliation had been to a great extent achieved, and it is that ghost of Ireland’s past that Irish nationalism has kept chasing. Considerable efforts were made in the centuries to invoke its spirit to rally Protestants to the cause, but ultimately in vain.
The 1800 Act of Union would mark the last time Protestants in Ulster were nationally minded as a unit, even the far from nationally minded Orange Order, despite its vicious opposition to the United Irishmen and Catholic emancipation, would lament at the impending loss of the 1782 Constitution obtained by Henry Grattan:
“That we see with unspeakable sorrow an attempt made to deprive us of that Constitution, our rising prosperity, and our existence as a nation, and reducing us to the degrading situation of a colony of England.”
By the 1803 rebellion, “the man from God knows where”, more well-known as Thomas Russell, found that in the Presbyterian districts of the North, whom had risen five years earlier, there was now little support for another insurrection, a general ambivalence, and in some quarters even hostility had taken hold.
By the era of “The Liberator” Daniel O’Connell, Protestant Ulster would find their foil in the Reverend Henry Cooke of Maghera, a commanding figure who successfully coalesced Presbyterian and Anglican interests together in a socio-political alliance against a nascent yet potent Catholic nationalist majority that were now committed to the Repeal of the Act of Union.
Cooke was a young boy during the 1798 Rising witnessing the rebels assembling in his native Maghera and it would leave a lasting impression on the rest of his life, but it would be 50 years on from the ‘Turn-Out’ that another South Derry Protestant, John Mitchel, arguably Ireland’s most revered nationalist of that century, would come awfully close to repeating it.
The Famine was undoubtedly the most catastrophic period in Irish history. Out of a total population of only eight million, one million would die of starvation and disease and another million would emigrate in the span of just a few years, unparalleled in its scale by any other nation. The Famine however was also indiscriminate in its destruction, paying little heed to the distinctions between Catholic and Protestant.
Ulster’s population declined by 15.7% from 1841 to 1851, and from 1834 to 1861 both the Church of Ireland and Presbyterian populations in Ireland, which in Ulster were predominantly made up of tenant farmers, would decline by around a fifth.
Mitchel, who wrote of the Famine that he had witnessed scenes that “might make wise men mad”, remarked in the first of a series of open letters to Protestant Ulster in the United Irishman that “extermination was creeping northward”, and exhorted his kinsmen to “closely examine their theory of “loyalty”:
“I can hardly so fancy any of my countrymen so brutally stupid as to prefer high taxes to low taxes – to be really proud of the honour of supporting “the Prince Albert” and his Lady and his children, and all the endless list of cousins and uncles that they have, in magnificent idleness, at the sole expense of half-starved labouring people. I should like to meet the Northern farmer or labouring man who would tell me in so many words that he prefers dear government to cheap government; that he likes the House of Brunswick better than his own house; that he would rather have the affairs of the country managed by foreign noblemen and gentlemen than by himself and his neighbours; that he is content to pay, equip, and arm an enormous army, and give the command of it to those foreign noblemen and to be disarmed himself or liable to be disarmed as you are, my friends, at any moment. I should like to see the face of the Ulsterman who would say plainly that he deems himself unfit to have a voice in the management of his own affairs, the outlay of his own taxes, or the government of his own country. If any of you will admit this I own he is a loyal man and attached to our venerable institutions and I wish him joy of his loyalty and a good appetite for his yellow meal.”
This sense of displacement and looming extermination Protestant Ulster was growing keenly aware of; Mitchel recalls this in the Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps):
“…The Orange farmers and burghers of the North were fast becoming diligent students of the United Irishman; and although they and their Order had been treated with some neglect of late, both by England and by the Irish aristocracy, they were now taken into high favour; and arms were secretly issued to some of their lodges, from Dublin Castle. But this needed prudence; for Protestant Repeal Associations had been formed in Dublin, in Drogheda, and even in Lurgan, a great centre of Orangeism. To counteract the progress we had made in this direction, the aristocracy and the clergy were incessant in their efforts, and the Protestants were assured that if Ireland should throw off the dominion of Queen Victoria, we would all instantly become vassals to the Woman who sitteth upon Seven Hills.”
The Tenant Right Association of Lurgan, home to one of the most fatally afflicted workhouses in the country, had passed a motion for native government and dozens of Orangemen were reported expelled from their lodges for having disobeyed orders not to mingle with Repealers.
A simmering rage throughout the entire country was slowly brewing which the landlord class and the British government feared was going to boil over into revolt; it was then no surprise that the final letter Mitchel addressed to his co-religionists would be one that had been smuggled out of Newgate Prison for Mitchel’s preaching of open sedition finally provoked the British to respond, and the United Irishman would be forcibly disbanded not long after.
An all-island Tenant Right League would be co-founded in 1850 by a founding member of The Nation, Charles Gavan Duffy, William Sharman Crawford, a liberal unionist MP, and James MacKnight, editor of the unionist Londonderry Standard, which briefly united both unionism and nationalism in a tenant right initiative before eventually Ulster Protestant interest withered away once more.
Fenianism would be the next incarnation of the nationalist movement, and in Ulster, the IRB had some degree of limited success in recruiting Protestants and were active in some Protestant towns in the province including Ballymena, Ballymoney and Coleraine to name several. David Bell, a Presbyterian minister from County Antrim, was a member of the IRB’S Executive Council, alongside Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Charles Kickham and James Stephens. However, nothing fundamentally changed. Despite the Fenians’ hostile relationship with the Catholic Church, the vast majority of Ulster Protestants viewed Fenianism with intense suspicion of being a “Papist” front anyway.
Then came the Gaelic League, which proved initially very successful in its recruitment of Protestants, and although the Gaelic League took an officially neutral stance on the national question until 1915, Douglas Hyde remarked of many of the Protestant unionists who joined “that a year or two of this study usually ate their unionist tendencies like an acid, and left them convinced Nationalists.” One of the more extreme cases of this was George Irvine from Enniskillen, who joined the Gaelic League in 1905, and eventually went on to join both the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Republican Brotherhood and lead a company of Volunteers at South Dublin Union on Easter Week 1916, a role in which he was initially sentenced to death for before his sentence was commuted.
The advanced nationalist movement of the late nineteenth to early twentieth century in the North’s efforts however were ultimately hampered by many factors, namely emigration and blacklisting by the RIC. The Shan Van Vocht journal co-founded by the Protestant Alice Milligan and the Catholic Ethna Carbery was a noble effort to develop a distinctively northern yet Irish and national identity that united both the folklore of Gaelic Ireland and Protestant Ulster’s participation in 1798 as one historical nationalist narrative yet ultimately floundered after only a few years.
Bulmer Hobson, regarded as one of the finest organisers of that particular generation, and was hoped by none other than Tom Clarke among others to be the next John Mitchel, tried yet failed repeatedly in his efforts to build up an Ulster Protestant nationalist movement. The Alternative Ulster Covenant of 1913 hoped to rally Protestant support for Home Rule as a direct rebuke to Edward Carson and the Ulster Volunteers. As many as 12,000 Protestants in County Antrim signed, yet such a figure was probably paltry compared to the tens of thousands of loyalists in Antrim that had signed the original Covenant.
Protestant nationalism had become increasingly the reserve of the middle-class and of the eccentrics, divorced from the staunch unionism that now defined the working-class Protestant districts of East Belfast and the ordinary tenant farmers of rural Ulster. However, it had continued to exist peripherally even if only as the reserve of “rotten Prods” and “turncoats.”
Even by the eve of the Troubles in 1968, 20% of Protestants still considered themselves Irish (not necessarily nationalist), but still a respectable figure especially in comparison to what it would become in 2011; only 4%. Nationalist sentiment amongst Protestants had now ceased to even exist as a minority tradition, and was now almost extinct, a vegetative state is where it continues to exist to this day.
One of the lasting legacies of 1798 was the demonstration that the sectarian divisions could be overcome in a nationalist movement if overpowered by a greater common interest. The indignity of the Penal Laws and the scourge of landlordism had brought the Presbyterians of the North into a socio-political alignment with Catholics, amidst a common enemy in the Protestant Ascendancy, christening the birth of modern Irish republicanism. Fifty years later, common interests once again began to converge as famine, death and evictions scourged the whole land without distinction, yet national unity was fatefully scuppered by British suppression.
To revive the spirit of 1798 became an increasingly difficult and increasingly determined effort, yet garnered little success before thirty years of conflict that struck at the very core of a divided Ulster nearly completely eradicated what little remnants of it was left.
It has been so long that to be British is now considered the inherent nature of being an Ulster Protestant, one of the great ironies of Irish history being that the spectre of modern Irish republicanism was the monster of Protestant Ulster’s own creation, an irony that they desperately try to shake loose. Yet a graver loss is that of an entire tradition of nationalism spanning from Henry Joy McCracken to Roger Casement. Can it be risen from the dead or is it now a permanent footnote of history?
Invoking the spirit of 1798 may be very useful in rooting Ulster Protestants to a distinct nationalist tradition which they, particularly in Antrim and Down, can hold legitimate claim to. But if such a tradition ceases to exist as a living faith, due to the sheer lack of Protestant interest in nationalism, then it becomes rather irrelevant.
If it is the desire of an Irish nationalist movement to win over at least some degree of Protestant support and to ultimately revive that tradition, it must do so standing on the merits of its own cultural, economic and political policies rooted in the present that achieves a common interest that overpowers the sectarian divide, alike to that achieved by the men of ’98.