1790s brought back to life at Cathedral
HUNDREDS turned out to hear Professor Kevin Whelan deliver the inaugural Autumn Hill of Derry Lecture in St Columb’s Cathedral on ‘Derry in Revolutionary Times.’
The eminent 1790s scholar framed the events of that tumultuos decade in the wider context of three revolutions - the Glorious 1688-90, the American 1776-82 and the French 1789.
Whilst the broad brushstrokes made for an entertaining and informative talk, Prof. Whelan also pencil sketched plenty of local characters as well.
The Earl Bishop Frederick Augustus Hervey, his agent, the Rev. Henry Bruce, the erstwhile Dean of Derry, John Hume, George Hill of Brook Hall, and Londonderry Journal editor George Douglas all featured.
Figures form earlier periods, including Captain John Dowdall of Enniskillen and Cathaoir Ó Dochartaigh, the last Gaelic lord of Inishowen, also appeared as Prof. Whelan outlined the background to the revolutionary 1790s.
The event was introduced by Mark Lusby of the City Walls Heritage Project as a chance to explore how we can be “enriched by the Walled City’s history rather than fettered by it.”
Speaking after the event he stated: “It was great to have such a subject discussed in historically resonant venue as the St Columb’s Cathedral. It was great also to bring the Georgian streetscape of that part of the Bishop’s Street alive on an autumn evening linking the Cathedral with the Bishop’s Palace.
“It is a sample of what could be done during 2013 to bring this beautiful but fractured part of our city alive during the Culture Year, bringing together ‘Protestants, Papists and Dissenters’ in debating our city’s past and discussing our city’s future.”
The evening commenced with the Dean of Derry Rev. William Morton performing a selection of music including the air from George Frederick Handel’s ‘The Water Music,’ followed by a theatrical discourse between Rev. Morton’s predecessor, Rev. John Hume, and the Earl Bishop’s agent, Rev. Henry Bruce.
Portrayed by actors the former Dean appeared to be putting the boot into the famed former Bishop, for his liberal political and religious attitudes.
His dalliance with the Irish Volunteers and donations to the Catholic Long Tower Church and the local Presbyterian meeting house were apparently divisive,
Rev. Hume maligned the Earl Bishop’s “ecumenism” whilst Rev. Bruce defended him.
A new bridge across the Foyle and a construction project for the Cathedral spire were also discussed. The more things change he more they stay the same!
Following this dramatic interlude Prof. Whelan commenced his talk by framing events in the North West and beyond within the context of three revolutions - the Glorious, the American, and the French.
He said that the Wars of Religion of the 15th and 16th century had resulted in a fissure dividing the Catholic “wine-drinkers of southern Europe and the beer and spirit drinking Protestants of the North.”
Towards the end of the 1500s the resurgent threat of an “intransigent counter-reformation” led by the French and Spanish helped distil a “siege mentality in Protestant Europe.” This helped glue Protestant Britain and Protestant Ireland together.
“The British sense of themselves as providentially chosen emerged out of the 16th and 17th century wars of religion,” argued Prof. Whelan.
He set the scene by emphasising the extraordinary violence and brutality of the Plantation period and the conflict between the old Gaelic elite and the new English settlers.
An example of the “sharp, bloody” reality of the period was illustrated by Captain John Dowdall of Enniskillen’s treatment of the Gaelic Maguires. Their heads were impaled in the garrison town as a warning to others at the commencement of the Nine Years’ War in 1594.
The same fate awaited the Inishowen chieftain Cathaoir Ó Dochartaigh whose head was chopped off and taken to Dublin after he sacked Derry and killed its Governor George Paulet in 1608.
Derry, pointed out Prof. Whelan was “very, very important strategically” situated as it was on a hill overlooking an ideal harbour in the River Foyle.
It was he said: “The most impressive of the Irish Plantation towns and the last great bastille in Europe.”
Derry or Londonderry as it became in 1613 was a town worth fighting over as the Sieges of 1644, 1649 and 1689 proved.
Though Derry had fallen in 1566 and 1608, Londonderry never did, earning it the title of the Maiden city.
Prof. Whelan pointed out that the successful defence of the city was not just a victory of professional soldiers but an act of citizenry as well.
“Derry fed into that British Protestant sense of themselves as under siege,” Prof. Whelan suggested.
This helped bolster Irish Protestantism’s sense of itself as beneficiary of a “benign providence.” This chimed with the wider British providential version of history, which was defined against the looming menace of resurgent Catholic realms in the European south.
Against this backdrop Prof. Whelan went on to sketch the internal religious melting pot in Londonderry during the late 17th and 18th centuries.
There were three ethno-religious denominations pitted together in a fluid complex of enmities and alliances in Ireland.
Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter could be read as a shorthand for English, Irish and Scottish.
Prof. Whelan painted a picture of “spiky” dissenters who didn’t believe in Cathedrals, Bishops or Popes, They questioned everything and were no great respecters of authority.
Although they often found themselves allied to Anglicanism in times of common danger, once the common danger was removed the old divisions quickly reappeared.
And there were lots of Presbyterians in the Londonderry area and its hinterland of the Laggan in Donegal. In the North West the dissenters dominated Anglicans in numbers and they looked north to Scotland rather than east to England in cultural terms.
Of 619 Presbyterian ministers in Ireland in the 1700, for example, only three were educated in Dublin and only 20 were educated outside Scotland.
After collaborating on the joint effort of King William’s Glorious Revolution, which had united Protestant and Dissenter, Anglicanism quickly became dominant in the Penal era.
Not long after the victories at the Boyne and Aughrim, however, the Anglican elite - comprising just five per cent of the population and later labelled the ‘Ascendancy’ - began to monopolise place and pension under the new regime.
Presbyterians were soon disgruntled over the Test Act of 1704, which debarred them from public office, and by the late 1700s many were quite susceptible to the exponents of protest against landlords and tithe proctors.
For their part Irish Protestants like Archbishop William King of Dublin were under no illusions about their position as top dog in a pyramidal society.
In the realpolitik of time they understood that they had to do what they had to do.
The Bishop William Nicholson of Derry in 1720 described how “an Irish Tory was hanged, drawn and quartered in Derry.” His head was afterwards spiked above the jail.
Gaelic Irish Tories such as this unfortunate were uniquely isolated creatures in this Protestant part of Europe. They looked south to their co-religionists in Spain and France.
Prof. Whelan argued that the poor Gaelic Irish were highly politicised from a very early stage as a result of their experience as a dispossessed, colonised people.
Historians and philosophers like Benedict Anderson might have argued that the concept of nations emerged only with newspapers and national schools systems but in Ireland the dispossession of the Gaelic Irish helped galvanise a sense of Irish identity, argued Prof Whelan.
The opposition between the Protestant settlers and the oppressed Gaelic Irish produced an accelerated politicisation and the formation of a national identity. In the late 1500s, according to Prof. Whelan. the Irish already knew they were Irish.
He referred to the example of Francisco de Cuellar, who was wrecked with the Spanish Armada and went walkabout in the north West in 1588. Apparently, he couldn’t believe the people he met referred to themselves as ‘Irish’ rather than by regional or parochial demonyms.
Prof. Whelan said this was compounded by a strong Jacobite ideology and a nominal but diehard loyalty to the crypto-Catholic Stuart Kings over the water.
He quoted a poem by the 17th century Gaelic poet Donnchadh Caoch ua Mathghamhna to show how the Irish saw themselves as living in exile in a kind of Babylonian captivity.
Amusingly, he drew an analogy with the plot of Disney’s The Lion King with King William III cast as Scar and the Stuarts as Mufasa and Simba.
By the late 17th century the Irish who had been expelled from the city and were beginning to huddle outside the Walls in the ‘Bogg side’ as the English invasion force of 1600 had called it, apparently harbouring these dangerous and disloyal notions.
In the 18th century the ancestors of Cathaoir Ó Dochartaigh, who had sacked Derry in 1608, were fit to complain about the loss of their land in Inishowen.
A scion of the same Ó Dochartaigh clan, John Ó Dochartaigh and his two brothers were later sent to Spain, where John became a naval officer in Cádiz.
By the time of the American Revolution in 1776-82 the Presbyterians in Londonderry were highly susceptible to the radical new brand of living republicanism espoused by George Washington who had famously vowed to make a last stand with the Scotch-Irish of his native Virginia should it have come down to it.
And Londonderry dissenters had been emigrating to the New World steadily from the 18th century onwards with Presbyterian Ministers advocating an escape from landlords and tithe proctors. Many sailed from Londonderry to settle in Pennsylvania and New York.
When things kicked off in America in the 1770s the news of the ‘Declaration of Independence’ reached Londonderry before anywhere else. It was read in this city before it was published in Belfast.
Local Presbyterians were very receptive to the reinvigorated concept of republicanism as evinced in America, which was a novel republicanism far removed from the republics of the classical period.
Worryingly for the authorities the Americans has beaten the British army with a volunteer army - fighting for love rather than money - and had humiliated Cornwallis in so doing.
And as the American War of Independence was drawing to a close in 1782, Londonderry was becoming a centre for the inchoate Irish Volunteer movement, of which the Earl Bishop Hervey was an advocate and member.
In 1780, the Earl Bishop noted the “elastic uncontrollable spirit” in the North West and in 1781, 781 Volunteer units from all over Londonderry, Donegal and Tyrone attended the Derry Grand review.
Prof. Whelan noted that by 1788-89 Volunteers here re-enacted the Siege of Derry and emphasised civil and liberty for all - including Roman Catholics.
Bishop Hervey’s liberalism had been in evidence from 1772 when he had exhorted: “Place us all on the same footing and we will all be equally good subjects.”
In Londonderry the Volunteers supported Hervey’s contribution to the building of a Catholic Church at the Long Tower and another in Glendermott, where there was a Protestant collection for a Catholic place of worship.
In 1777 Bishop Hervey also supported a new meeting house for Londonderry’s Presbyterian community in the atmosphere of religious toleration that existed.
By 1798 when the rebellion was in full swing elsewhere the typically loyal Catholic hierarchy in the form of the Bishop of Derry, Charles’ O’Donnell, could encourage his flock not to rebel.
“We have our chapels now thanks to the Protestants of the city,” he had said.
Despite all this revolutionary fervour Prof. Whelan pointed out that Ireland differed substantially from America in that there were Catholics in Ireland and none in the New World aside from Spanish settlements far removed from the revolution in New England.
When the Irish Patriot leader Henry Grattan asked in 1782 if his co-religionists wanted to be a “Protestant settlement or an Irish nation” the aforementioned siege mentality helped delate the Volunteer balloon that had been slowly inflating.
Later the extremism of the sans-culottes in France who in 1789 took the republicanism of America and multiplied it by 100, hanging hundreds of priests and promoting wildly democratic ideas like liberty, egality and fraternity, frightened many would-be reformers.
Theobald Wolfe Tone, in an ‘Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland’ in 1791 claimed that if the French Catholics - hitherto archetypal cringers under the undemocratic rule of Ancien Régime Catholicism - could free themselves of their shackles, so could Irish Catholics.
Prof. Whelan noted that Londonderry was not immune to such ideas.
Although Tone’s United Irishmen were founded simultaneously in Belfast and Dublin there was a presence here as well.
In fact there were 10,000 United Irishmen in the county all told and Thomas Paine’s democratic treatise ‘The Rights of Man’ was published in Londonderry before it was published in Belfast or Dublin.
Comically, the perennial rivalry between Londonderry and Belfast existed even back then.
George Douglas, the editor of the Londonderry Journal, slagged off the geographic solipsism of the Belfast radical paper the Northern Star by in 1792 suggesting that to read it one would think “that the moon that shines in their parish, shines better than in the next.”
Despite all the radical activity Londonderry was not ‘out’ in 1798.
In 1797 General John Knox had claimed that the “line of the Bann” would be held and that the radical discontent in Antrim and Down would not be allowed to spread to Londonderry. This was how things transpired. Cornwallis would later praise George Hill for his handling of events in the city.
And when Jean-Baptiste-François Bompart’s attempt to land 3,000 French soldiers at Lough Swilly in October 1798 was spectacularly defeated by John Borlase Warren, Londonderry Corporation decided to bestow the freedom of the city on the victorious commander.
Warren’s victory came after the furious Battle of Tory Island on October 12, 1798 between French and British squadrons off the northwest coast
Concluding his lecture Prof. Whelan said the task of the Londonderry community now was to try to develop a shared narrative from the city’s rich and fluid history.
Rev. Dean Morton thanked the Holywell Trust for organising the event and said it was fitting the lecture was taking place in a building that was in existence at the time of the events in question and was today a “leading centre for peace and reconciliation.”
Following the lecture attendees adjourned to the Bishop’s Place (Freemasons’ Hall) for a Georgian period soirée with conversation, music and refreshments.
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Weather for Londonderry
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 10 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 9 mph
Wind direction: North
Temperature: 8 C to 14 C
Wind Speed: 20 mph
Wind direction: North west