Under the Sign of the Peacock

Today, in the News Letter, as Lord Mayor of Belfast, I traced the 259-year story of the newspaper…

In 1737 Francis Joy issued a printed letter from The Sign of the Peacock in Bridge Street, Belfast, Ireland.

It was 15 inches long and nine inches wide and was printed in three columns on each side. 

It was called The Belfast News Letter and General Advertiser and is now famous throughout the world as the oldest British daily newspaper. 

Belfast was then a town of about 7,000 inhabitants.  The previous 50 years had been momentous in the history of the Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland.  On February 6 1685, Charles II of England had died. 

When his brother, James II, ascended the Throne, the inhabitants of the growing town of Belfast (population around 2,000) sent a congratulatory address to the new king. 

But while government in the last years of Charles II had been based on a close understanding between the Court on the one hand and the High Church and Tory Party on the other, James was an avowed Roman Catholic who was determined to adopt rapid methods of Romanising the Country. 

This led to extraordinary political circumstances and on November 5, William Henry, Prince of Orange and Nassau, at the invitation of James’ enemies, landed at Torbay in England with an army, and the Glorious Revolution had begun. 

During the Civil War which followed, the Protestants of Ulster defended Derry and Enniskillen and fought at Aughrim and the Boyne.  Yet all this passed for nothing.  Having reduced the rebellious Roman Catholics by the harsh Penal Laws under William which was based on French Catholic legislation against Protestants, the High Church party had gained in strength and by the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714) were pressing for complete conformity. 

In 1704 the Test Act was passed which required all office holders in Ireland to take the sacrament of the Anglican Church. 

Although ostensibly passed to further discourage Roman Catholicism, the real object of this Act was to place the Presbyterians in the same plane of impotence. 

Presbyterian ministers had now no official standing and marriages performed by them were null and void.  Presbyterians and other dissenters could not now serve in the army, the militia, the civil service, the municipal corporations, the teaching profession on the commission of the peace. 

At Belfast, the entire corporation was expelled, and Londonderry lost 10 of its 12 Aldermen. 

The final straw for Ulster’s Dissenters came with the drought of the decade after.  This ruined crops, including flax, so that farmers, weavers and townspeople suffered alike.  In 1716, sheep were afflicted with the rot and many died.  Severe frost ensued.  Prices soared and absentee English landlords steadily increased their rents.  Thus began around 1717 the great migration from Ulster to America. 

This migration was enough to arouse the English conscience and in 1719 an Act of Parliament was passed to permit Dissenters to celebrate their own form of worship.  But rack-renting continued and from 1725 to 1729 there was such an exodus of Ulster Presbyterians to the south eastern tier of counties in Pennsylvania that their political influence quickly became considerable.  This influence was directed increasingly against England. 

A feedback into Ulster itself helped to make it a centre of radicalism, which was embodied in the establishment of the News Letter in 1737.  This newspaper continued to promote the cause of radical libertarianism both in the United States and Ulster itself.  Indeed, the first armed clash to precede the American Revolutionary War occurred in 1771, when Ulster settlers fought Government forces on the Allemance River in North Carolina. 

On May 20 1775 they were the most prominent signatories of the Mecklenberg Declaration of Independence drawn up in Charlotte, North Carolina.  They subsequently supported the Declaration of Independence passed by the Continental Congress on July 4 1776 and they composed the backbone of Washington’s army in the Revolutionary War which followed.

Their cause was totally advocated by the News Letter, so that the contemporary Harcourt wrote: “The Presbyterians in the North are in their hearts Americans.” 

One direct influence in the radical thinking which was now being formulated was the work of the great Ulster philosopher Francis Hutcheson, son of an Armagh Presbyterian Minister, who was born probably at Drumalig, Saintfield, Co. Down in 1694.  His most important work A Sense of Moral Philosophy (1755), about the right of resistance by a people in the event of betrayal of trust by government.  He expounded the doctrine of religious toleration and he deeply admired the tradition of armed militias for the protection of civil liberties.  These principles found their way via American Revolutionary thinkers into the Declaration of Independence and are embodied in the American Constitution. 

The American Revolution was to have a profound effect on the further history of Ireland in general and of Ulster in particular.  When France and Spain joined the Americans in 1778, an invasion of Ireland was feared an armed militia was formed.  These volunteers were predominantly Protestants and they quickly became a political force in the fight for Irish Parliamentary independence.  In Dublin, Jonathan Swift, the Protestant Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, urged people to burn everything English except their coal.  But it was in Belfast that those heights of radical political philosophy were reached which gave the town the name The Athens of the North. 

In February, 1782 delegates from a number of volunteer companies in Ulster held a convention at Dungannon and adopted resolutions favouring legislative and judicial independence and the relaxation of the penal laws against Roman Catholics.  In June of that year, the Irish Parliament began to formally initiate its own legislation for the first time in over 200 years.  Ulster was to have as many volunteers as the other three provinces combined and a much higher proportion of the population was politically active so that Grattan and other politicians declared that “liberty is a native of the North”. 

Under the direction of the News Letter in 1784, the inhabitants of Belfast pressed for parliamentary reform and the emancipation of Catholics.  In 1789 they welcomed the French Revolution while in 1791 they celebrated the second anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille.  However, when the new parliament became hide bound through lack of proper reforms, the Volunteer movement went into a gradual decline. 

On April 1 1791 a group of progressive thinkers met in Peggy Bartley’s Tavern in Belfast with the purpose of forming a society to promote the ideals that were inspiring so many of the Belfast radicals; men like Dr William Drennan, Robert and William Sims, Thomas McCabe, Henry Joy McCracken and Samuel Nielsen. 

The natural extension of this meeting was the invitation to the young Dublin lawyer, Theobold Wolfe Tone, to come to Belfast on October 14 1791, on which date was founded the society of the United Irishmen (to form a brotherhood of affection among Irishmen of every religious persuasion). 

The following year, the United Irish Society established a more radical newspaper in opposition to the News Letter, named The Northern Star, which was edited by Samuel Nielsen the son of a Presbyterian minister. 

In 1793, Britain declared war on France, and Pitt, the British Prime Minister, pressurised the Irish government to raise a largely Catholic militia to defend Ireland for the Crown.  The Volunteers were at the same time disbanded by proclamation and the proprietors of the Northern Star prosecuted.  The Society of the United Irishmen, or Libertymen as they new themselves, rapidly became a secret oath-bound movement dedicated to the overthrow of the State.  This culminated in the great Irish Rebellion of 1798, generally suppressed by the Catholic militia under Orange leadership. 

Ironically, the failure of the Rebellion let directly to an Act of Union being passed, and on January 2 1801 Ireland became part of the United Kingdom.  The union between Great Britain and Ireland was seen by several of the United Irish leaders as actually an achievement of some of their aims and an admission by the Westminster Parliament that the Irish Parliament had been corrupt and unjust. 

In 1799, Samuel Nielsen had written from Fort George Prison in Scotland: “I see a union is determined on between Great Britain and Ireland.  I am glad of it.  In a commercial point of view, it cannot be injurious and I can see no injury the country will sustain from it politically.” 

While the new policy had been under debate, there had been much apathy in Ireland.  Most Protestants were opposed to it.  In particular, the Protestant Orange Society, founded in 1795 and claiming a membership of 200,000, was opposed to the Union fearing Catholic emancipation.  With one exception, the Roman Catholic bishops expressed themselves as in favour of the union while most of their people, who had no participation in political affairs at any time, were indifferent.  When the actual legislation for the union had been framed, however, it was gravely defective. 

It did not express Pitt’s intentions nor respond to the expectations which the Roman Catholic bishops had been led to entertain.  It did not include a simultaneous removal of all remaining discrimination against Catholics and the civil and religious liberties that Pitt had intended it should.  Pitt therefore tendered his resignation and Catholic emancipation itself did not come until 1829. 

All these events were recovered in detail by the News Letter, as was the increasing conversion to Unionism of the Ulster people during the 19th Century.  Yet it is in its radical roots that the oldest British daily newspaper remains strong and it is in its libertarian traditions, based on the enduring principles of justice, goodness and truth, that it will continue to grow strong into the next millennium.


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