Philip Orr’s New Perspectives – Politics, Religion and Conflict in Mid-Antrim, 1911-1914: Book Review and Website Launch

WP_20121008A valuable resource on local history went digital last week with the launch of a new website called ‘New Perspectives’ on Home Rule,hosted by the Braid Mid-Antrim Museum in Ballymena.

The content of the website is based on a book by Philip Orr, New Perspectives: Politics, Religion and Conflict in Mid-Antrim, 1911-1914, published last year by the Mid-Antrim Museum.

The website is geared towards classroom teaching in years 10 and 14, but includes images and access to materials that would be of interest to history buffs of all ages. The site – as well as Orr’s book – draws on the Braid’s Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) archive, which was discovered at the Braidwater Spinning Mill. The owners of the mill, the Young Family, were prominent anti-Home Rulers and helped to set up the local UVF.

Visitors to the site will get more out of it if they also read Orr’s book, an attractively produced volume that skilfully weaves together the events of that tumultuous period with the stories of the key movers and shakers in the local area. It is illustrated with 54 handsome images, ranging from a Church of Ireland bishop blessing the colours of the UVF (p. 121) to Craig and Carson’s visit to Galgorm Castle (p. 93).

The Ulster Covenant, commemorated across Northern Ireland last month, of course features prominently, with an entire chapter – 1912: The Year of the Covenant – devoted to it. But the strength of Orr’s work is that it is set in the broader context of social and political changes within Ireland and Great Britain and across Europe. This includes analysis of class divisions, labour unrest and the suffragettes’ movement.

Orr also devotes chapters to the formation of the UVF and discusses the Larne gun-running, demonstrating just how far unionists were willing to go towards the brink of a civil war and the setting up of a provisional government.

Two of the key themes running throughout the book are:

  1. the religious rhetoric and fervour that undergirded the anti-Home Rule movement, and
  2. the Protestant voices that dissented from the dominant unionist perspective that ‘Home Rule is Rome Rule.’

Orr quotes liberally from newspaper accounts of the day, in which the stirring sermons of anti-Home Rule clerics were given wide press. For example, Orr gleans this from the Ballymena Observer of 1913 (p. 88):

‘During this time, rousing anti-nationalist speeches were being delivered at full volume by local clergy. During a meeting of the Mid-Antrim Unionist Women at Galgorm Parks, the Reverend Gilmour saw fit to re-iterate the judgement of his colleague the Reverend Simpson that Catholic nationalists were ‘incapable of running this or any country.’ He revisited the theme of papal perfidy, telling the ladies that ‘Romanism’ had ‘blighted every country in which it had a ruling power.’ And he re-worked the religious and political concept of Ireland, England and Scotland as a sacred trio, referring to these countries as a ‘three-leafed shamrock’ – while Wales, sadly, was once more overlooked in this trinitarian evocation of the Union. Gilmour warned that without this God-given union ‘the grand old British Empire of theirs would totter into dust.’

While David Trimble may have recently dismissed Protestants who dissented from the prevailing view about the Ulster Covenant, Orr pays attention to their perspectives, telling the stories of people like Rose Young (the daughter of a staunch unionist family, who nonetheless embraced the Gaelic revival), Jack White (a pro-Home Rule Protestant who had served in the British Army in the Boer War), John Dinsmore (a liberal Unionist industrialist who argued for better conditions for workers and eventually advocated Home Rule), and Church of Ireland clergyman F.J. MacNeice in Carrickfergus (father of poet Louis MacNeice). Of MacNeice he writes (p. 100):

‘Whilst MacNeice was not an Irish nationalist, he did regard the tactics of the unionist leadership as socially divisive, ill-judged and likely to end in communal violence. He proceeded to share his views with his congregation in a number of sermons that seem to have been received with polite scepticism.’

But New Perspectives is not a stridently ‘revisionist’ text or a pointed theological critique of the Ulster Covenant/Home Rule crisis along the lines of Johnston McMaster’s Overcoming Violence or McMaster and Cathy Higgins’ Signing the Covenant.

Rather, Orr mostly succeeds in achieving a good balance between presenting the differing perspectives of those who held opposing viewpoints during the period. New Perspectives provides the historical context that helps us to understand how people of good faith could come to such radically different conclusions. This is achieved in a writing style that is popular and accessible.

New Perspectives, and its accompanying website, have a relevance far beyond the Mid-Antrim area and deserve a wide reading.

(Click here for the new website)